Many retailers ending free online returns

Returning your holiday purchases could cost you this year. More retailers now charge fees for online returns.

During the pandemic, we all shopped online like crazy. And retailers offered free online returns to get us to buy more stuff. So we did.

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But 40-year-high inflation means retailers face higher labor and shipping costs, and those free online returns are starting to go away.

The National Retail Federation reports online returns more than doubled from $102 billion in products in 2020 to $218 billion in 2021. That's driving up costs, not to mention pollution, for re-packaging, re-trucking, and re-flying items around the country.

"If you have more customers returning more goods, those companies are having to try to swallow that. It’s hard. They can’t do both. Especially with the cost of inflation, as well, right now," explained Erin Halka, Senior Director of Industry Strategy at Blue Yonder.

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To help reduce returns, many retailers now offer virtual reality and True Fit questionnaires to help shoppers better visualize items in their homes, or choose clothes that will fit.

"You’ve seen Walmart that recently came out with a virtual try-on, where they’re taking a scan of the body and being able to apply clothing to that," said Halka.

And now many are ending free-online returns by deducting shipping or restocking fees from your refund.  

For example, Zara is charging $3.95 for online returns, J. Crew $7.50, and Dillard's $9.95. Kohl's requires customers to pay the shipping cost. Footwear News offers a list of stores' return fees.


But you can avoid these fees. Most retailers offer free in-store returns. Choose sellers with stores near you or your gift recipient.

"That allows them to get circulated back into the economy much faster," said Halka.

And get specific when gifting.

"Get what color, what size do people want. Get those gift lists defined as much as possible," said Kristin McGrath, shopping expert with RetailMeNot.  

MORE: Tips to make easy gift returns

Some retailers also offer free online returns within two weeks, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and some, like Foot Locker, offer free exchanges.  

"Another thing to keep in mind, sometimes retailers wave return fees for their loyalty members," said McGrath. "DSW unlocks free returns with no return fees after you reach the Gold level."

Some smaller retailers, including Aerosoles and Levi Strauss, let you make free returns through a company called Happy Returns. Drop sites include FedEx, Ulta Beauty, and Staples stores.