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An End to the Flood of Parcels: Soon No More Free Returns?

People who order goods online and send them back again are a burden on mail-order companies and harm the environment. The Council of States’ Environment Committee is therefore calling on the Federal Council to take a closer look at the mail order business – and to regulate it more strictly if necessary. Soon no more free returns?

Soon no more free returns?

A friend invites you to a New Year’s Eve party. She specifies the dress code on the invitation: the guests should wear something sparkly. Because she can’t find a suitable item in her own closet and a stroll around town doesn’t promise much success, the search starts at an online retailer. Not only is there a huge selection, but you can also order several items of clothing at once – anything that doesn’t fit can be returned free of charge.

This option is widely used – the fashion sector’s return rate is exceptionally high. Surveys differ as to how high. According to the service DPD, 28% of all parcels from online retailers are returned. A study by Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in collaboration with Swiss Post calculated that the average returns rate of the 230 online stores surveyed was seven percent. However, there are also providers where up to 60 percent of orders are returned.

Online retailers are regularly criticized for free returns, among other things. Also, from politicians, as a current example shows, the Environment Committee of the Council of States has called on the Federal Council in a postulate to examine “which legislative changes are necessary to ensure the application of the polluter pays principle for returns in online mail order business.”

Economic and ecological disincentives

Specifically, the state government is to examine an “early returns fee”: For every order, the customer should pay a fee in advance, which is refunded if they keep the products ordered. In the Commission’s view, free returns create false economic and ecological incentives: on the one hand, retailers would have higher costs as a result, while on the other hand, the environment would be burdened “because usable items end up as waste and are previously transported back and forth over long distances.”

In addition, free returns put those “who order carefully and with serious intentions to buy” at a disadvantage. That is because the costs incurred by free returns “are passed on to all customers in equal measure.”

A similar proposal by National Councillor Michael Töngi (Greens/LU) was rejected by the conservative majority in the National Council last June. Töngi demanded a cost obligation for returns. Aware of the National Council’s decision, the Environment Committee of the Council of States has decided to submit a review request. The problem still exists, but “broader clarifications” are now needed.

Retailers want to prevent unnecessary returns

Online retailers think little of this. They point out that they are very interested in keeping the number of returns as low as possible to avoid costs. Switzerland’s largest online retailer, Digitec Galaxus, confirms this: “Unnecessary returns are not in our interest.” That’s why the website provides “lots of detailed product data,” and a team of experts answers questions about individual products.

Bernhard Egger, Managing Director of the Swiss Retail Association, also describes the environmental commission’s proposal as superfluous: “Retailers are already implementing many measures to reduce returns. These include improved product descriptions, size charts, customer ratings, and bonus systems for those customers who hardly ever return items.” According to Egger, a legal requirement would only lead to “Swiss retailers being at a disadvantage compared to international players”. An advance returns fee would also be “disproportionate and administratively extremely costly.”

In any case, the issue of free returns is primarily a social problem, says Egger: “We all have to ask ourselves how we use our resources. A new law makes no contribution to this.”

Original article: aargauerzeitung.ch, watson.ch

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