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Returns-First Shopping Strategies: Buyer Behavior is Shifting

The holiday shopping landscape is evolving every year, and it’s not just about finding the perfect gifts. It’s increasingly about what happens after the gift-giving is over—the returns. In our 2023 Consumer Holiday Shipping Report, we surveyed over 2,000 American consumers to understand how shipping and returns are influencing purchasing decisions, revealing a significant shift in holiday shopping consumer behavior, especially regarding e-commerce returns.

This report uncovers how consumers are now prioritizing returns when making holiday purchases (especially large items), transforming the way businesses need to approach this festive season. Here, we’ll get into what the report means for your business while giving you some practical tips for creating a return policy that works for your bottom line.

The Returns-First Shopping Strategy—Shoppers Are Buying With Returns in Mind

This year, the gap between retailer and consumer expectations has grown, particularly regarding returns. Consumers are expressing their intent to shop with returns as a top consideration this holiday season; 31% of shoppers plan to make returns an integral part of their shopping strategy. This means they are buying multiple items, fully aware that they can return them later if needed.


  • 22% of consumers expressed frustration in the previous holiday season when they couldn’t return a gift or had to pay a hefty fee for returns.
  • Nearly half (48%) of shoppers returned at least one gift during the last holiday season.
  • 21% returned three or more gifts in the same period.
  • This year, 40% of consumers are planning to return at least one gift.

Retailers that offer seamless returns experiences see a substantial boost in consumer purchase intent:

  • 31% of shoppers are more likely to choose one retailer over another if they offer free shipping and returns.
  • 32% exclusively consider retailers who provide free shipping and returns.
  • 22% found paying for standard shipping in the previous holiday season a significant inconvenience.

The Power of Generous Return Policies

The importance of a generous return policy is massive. Businesses that make it easy for consumers to return items are more likely to secure their loyalty. How? By giving them the confidence to buy knowing they’ll be taken care of should they need a return; this also reduces cart abandonment.

This shift in consumer behavior highlights the significance of offering hassle-free returns. When returns are easy, and consumers know it, they’re more likely to make multiple and repeat purchases. In return, you build brand loyalty and drive more sales.

Changing Holiday Shopping Habits

While Black Friday and Cyber Monday continue to be significant shopping events, 30% of consumers are planning to delay their holiday shopping until early December or the week before Christmas.

  • 43% of consumers intend to conduct at least half of their holiday gift shopping online.
  • Of those who opt for online shopping, 45% prefer to have their purchases shipped rather than picking them up in-store.
  • Delayed shipments and paying extra for expedited shipping were major pain points in the previous holiday season, as reported by 33% and 19% of consumers, respectively.
  • 26% of shoppers plan to buy the majority of their gifts from a single retailer to simplify shipping and returns.

Despite high expectations for fast, free shipping, consumers are also seeking sustainability in their holiday purchases. A significant 63% of shoppers are more likely to buy from retailers prioritizing sustainable shipping.

The Challenge of Shipping Large and Bulky Items

While consumers often desire large items, such as furniture, kayaks, home appliances, etc., these gifts come with their own set of shipping-related challenges. The complexity of the shipping and delivery process deters 31% of consumers from buying these large items.

  • A quarter (25%) of consumers are put off by lengthy expected delivery times.
  • 20% are discouraged by the high cost of returns for large and bulky gifts.
  • For the 34% of consumers planning to do most of their shopping in-store, large gifts can pose logistical difficulties.
  • 18% of shoppers cited receiving damaged or incorrect items as a major pet peeve from the previous holiday season.

Retailers stand to benefit by addressing these concerns and enhancing the experience for consumers interested in large and bulky items, as these purchases often generate significant revenue.

When you can point to your friction-free returns process, you’ll attract more buyers, win more sales, build loyalty, and protect your business; you won’t have the incessant customer inquiries and frustrations around how returns are handled, and you’ll see brand loyalty take off. With uShip as your returns partner, you can offer this, and boatloads more, and show your customers how much you value them all while improving your e-commerce returns management process.

Steps You Can Take Now

Meeting consumer expectations while increasing profitability is possible with a little bit of planning and the right mindset. Incorporating uShip into some of these measures can enhance the shopping experience and streamline shipping and returns processes.

Here are practical action steps:

  1. Offer a Generous Return Policy: Review and revise your return policy to make it more consumer-friendly. Offer free returns for a specified period after the holiday season. How can we help? No matter how large the item, uShip can provide a seamless and cost-effective returns shipping solution for your business.
  2. Provide Thorough Product Descriptions: Offer plenty of pictures, descriptive statements, and product dimensions so buyers know exactly what they’re getting before they purchase. This will help mitigate returns in the first place.
  3. Adopt Sustainable Shipping Practices: Address consumer demand for sustainable shipping options by partnering with eco-friendly carriers and adopting eco-conscious packaging. Work with uShip to integrate sustainable shipping practices into your supply chain, thus reducing the carbon footprint of your deliveries. Our first-to-final mile delivery service means reduced transit miles and lower carbon emissions.
  4. Streamline Returns Processing: Leverage uShip’s expertise in return shipping to streamline the return process, reducing the time and costs associated with handling returns. Because we are a first-to-final mile solution, your product doesn’t change hands which cuts down time and reduces damage rates. This allows you to quickly assess, refurbish, and restock returned items, further driving costs down.
  5. Educate Consumers on Your Return Policy: Communicate your return policy clearly and proactively to manage consumer expectations and reduce returns resulting from misunderstandings.
  6. Innovate Your Customer Service: Invest in customer service to address consumer inquiries and concerns promptly. Offer real-time tracking and communication options. Work with uShip to provide a seamless customer service experience, including tracking and resolving shipping and returns issues efficiently.

The Bottom Line

Returns have become a pivotal aspect of buyer behavior, with consumers planning their purchases with the intention of returning items if necessary. Retailers must adapt to this shift by providing convenient returns processes. Furthermore, shoppers are procrastinating in their holiday shopping. Meeting consumer expectations for quick and sustainable shipping is crucial.

As the holiday season approaches, businesses must recognize that returns are at the forefront of their customers’ minds. By offering a seamless returns experience, understanding shifting shopping timelines, and addressing the complexities of delivering large and bulky items, retailers can make the 2023 holiday shopping season a success.

Heather Hoover-Salomon, CEO of uShip, emphasizes the importance of this shift, stating, “The more retailers begin to plan with returns in mind today, the smoother the experience will be for shipper and consumer alike in the months to come.”

Businesses need to adapt and cater to these changing consumer behaviors, ensuring a positive shopping experience for all. Learn more about return shipping and see how uShip can help your business meet today’s customer expectations.