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Today is expected to be the biggest day ever for online returns

By Abha Bhattarai The Washington Post

Today is the day, UPS predicts, when you’ll finally get around to sending back that ill-fitting sweater or those too-tight jeans.

The shipping company says it expects to process a record 1.3 million return packages – nearly double its typical load – on Thursday, which it has dubbed National Returns Day. For the week, it says it will handle nearly 6 million returns, marking a 20 percent increase from last year.

“UPS is breathing a sigh of relief that the holidays are over, and now we’ve got another crazy week coming up,” said Jim Brill, marketing manager for the United Parcel Service. “There has been a dramatic rise in returns as more people shop online.”

Americans were expected to spend $117 billion online this holiday season, according to estimates from the National Retail Federation.

Those big purchases can translate to big returns: An estimated 25 to 30 percent of online purchases are sent back, about triple the rate for items bought in-store, according to a report by Worldwide Business Research. For clothing and shoes bought online, the return rate can be as high as 40 percent.

The result is $260.5 billion worth of returned items a year, a 34 percent increase from 2010, according to the National Retail Federation. FedEx estimates that Americans mailed back $20 billion worth of items last holiday season alone.

“Returns are a big fact of life, post-holidays,” said Tom Caporaso, chief executive of Clarus Commerce, which oversees a number of sites including “More and more, we’re seeing retailers offer free and easy returns, even though it’s something that’s very expensive for them.”

More than 60 percent of consumers say free return shipping is a priority for them when deciding whether to make an online purchase, Caporaso said. Sites like Nordstrom and, where an estimated one-third of purchased are returned, are particularly generous in their policies, offering free shipping and returns on every order. It’s a strategy Zappos executive say has worked well for them.

“Our best customers have the highest returns rates,” Craig Adkins, vice president of services and operations for Zappos, told Fast Company in 2010. “But they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers.”

(Zappos is a subsidiary of Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

UPS, for its part, says it is prepared to handle an onslaught of returns. The company has hired an estimated 95,000 seasonal holiday workers, who helped deliver as many as 32 million packages a day in the run-up to the holidays.

But what is it that’s so special about Jan. 5? It’s a combination of factors, Caporaso said, namely that the holidays are over, people are back at work and beginning to sift through the presents they received.

“It takes a while for people to try things on and make decisions,” he said. “But this is the week most of us start to print out those return labels, box up our things and actually return them.”

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