Holiday Returns: Never Too Early to Start Preparing

Published on January 4, 2022
Written by
Filed under Selling Channels
Read time 6 Minutes

With record-breaking e-commerce sales in 2016 came record-breaking holiday returns in early 2017. In fact, UPS predicted an increase in holiday returns anywhere between 16%-30% in the first week of January.

As we’ve mentioned, an increase in returns is NOT a bad thing. And during the holiday season, the rate of online returns grows to over 30%. So if you can’t stop holiday returns, how can you best prepare for them?

Play like the Pros

Yes, we recommend free returns shipping all the time. But we also understand that this is a strategy that may not work for every business. There’s plenty of research that says free returns are hurting online businesses. If you’ve found that your free returns policy has hurt your business and you’ve gone back to charging for returns, this recommendation is for you.

Take a page out of the Apple, Amazon, Target, Walmart, Macy’s, Kohl’s, etc., etc. playbook and change your policy for the holidays. Maybe this means extending your deadline. Maybe it’s offering free returns. Maybe it’s both (it should definitely be both).

Extended returns and the promise of free returns shipping will help holiday shoppers purchase with confidence. It’s totally plausible that the product won’t actually get to its intended recipient until weeks or months after purchase. Don’t punish your customers for purchasing early, in November. Reward them for being forward-thinking by extending the holiday returns period until the end of January or into February.

Keep in mind: returns are an opportunity to make a new sale. An easy process could lend itself to a lifelong customer.

Find a Second Sale

All right, so you have these open box/slightly used products piling up. What are you going to do to clear these out? After all, some may not be in re-sellable condition. Do you throw them out?

No, these returned products can have a second life. You can host a post-holiday, open-box sale. Instead of making your usual profit on the product, sell it for cost or just above. Alternatively, you can also create an open-box section on your site and sell at a general discount. If you go this route, make sure you take great photos of these products or make all sales final.

You could also sell these items on eBay, Craigslist, or OfferUp. Again, a discount is recommended but these avenues can mean you get rid of opened products quickly if you don’t feel comfortable re-selling them through your store.

Track the Data

If you’re going through all the effort of making holiday returns easier for your customers, then you also need to pay attention to why returns happen at all. Maybe it’s a gift and the recipient didn’t like it so much—there’s not really much you can do about that.

But if you suddenly see an influx of ‘product not as described’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘wrong product received’, then you need to start paying closer attention to how you display your products and how you’re shipping those products.

If your products wind up back in your possession because they aren’t as described, you need to take product photography to the next level. Be clear in how you describe things like fit and function. Scope out your competitors and see how they talk about their products. How can you do better?

Damaged and wrong products do more than just annoy customers—they hurt your brand. If you aren’t seen as a reliable shipper, customers won’t come back. So if you ever see an uptick in either of these reasons, it’s time to audit your shipping process. These are some items to look for:

  • How are you picking order products?
  • Are you doing a quality check before sealing each package?
  • What packing material are you using?
  • Are your boxes/packaging strong enough to survive the tumultuous mailing process?
  • How are you grouping products in your shipping space/warehouse?
  • Be honest: how organized is your shipping process?

Another way to test your process for inefficiencies and confusion is to have an outsider come in to pick and pack an order. Give them the rundown you’d give a temp, holiday employee, and see where they get confused. It doesn’t even have to be an outsider—you can bring in someone at your company who doesn’t ship for you.


Dedicate extra time NOW to get your holiday returns process mapped out. Holiday 2017 will be here before you know it, and with the entirety of November now dedicated to Black Friday-style sales, you’ll be in the weeds sooner than last year.

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Written by


I'm Joey, ShipStation's Content & Social Media Coordinator. I spent over a year on ShipStation's Support team which has given me great insight into our product and our customers. Outside of work, you'll find me writing, getting into one of Austin's great microbrews, or relaxing on a trail with my mutt.

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