Clothing Returns Abuse: Wardrobing

Worn and Returned: Don’t Let Wardrobing (and Other Returns Abuse) Ruin Your Summer

Stuart Mann - Worn and Returned: Don’t Let Wardrobing (and Other Returns Abuse) Ruin Your Summer

Stuart Mann

Aug 17, 2023

Summer is well and truly underway, which means consumers have been ordering the latest looks for the season. That could mean a wedding outfit, clothes for a day at the races, or a new look for a week or two away. And it doesn’t just apply to clothing either.

The majority of consumers will pay for what they order and keep it, but a fraudulent few will sidestep the expense by ordering the clothes they need, wearing them once or twice, and returning them to retailers afterwards. It’s a practice known as ‘wardrobing’, and it’s becoming increasingly common.

And it’s not just special occasion clothes. Wardrobing affects retailers of all kinds. In the social media age, some consumers order new outfits just for an Instagram photo, before sending them back while others will ‘try out’ a new style for a couple of days before returning the items and asking for a refund. It’s not just clothing that can be used in this manner – it could be furniture used for ‘staging’ a home or a purchase of any item with the intention of returning some of them to qualify for free shipping.

Wardrobing is fraud – and far from victimless

Wardrobing is returns abuse, or fraud, and it is an expensive business. According to a study by the US-based National Retail Federation (1), returns fraud costs the retail industry $12.6 billion in lost sales, and wardrobing is a major contributor to that total.

It’s easy to see why. Studies show that some consumers regularly order clothes for a night out, wear them once and return them. In a 2019 survey (2), a fifth of UK respondents admitted to having bought items with the express intention of wearing them and sending them back. 

Some consumers may see wardrobing as something of a victimless crime. After all, they don’t keep the item. While that may be true, Gartner research (3) has found that less than half of returned goods are resold at full price. Some of them must be thrown away and the global cost of living crisis may tempt more consumers to turn to wardrobing.

Wardrobing returns abuse fraud is a hugely expensive headache

Wardrobing returns abuse feeds into the wider problem of returns fraud. US retailers lost $84.9 billion (4) in fraudulent returns in 2022. Buy online, return in-store (BORIS) is a particularly problematic channel for retailers in this respect. BORIS return fraud is thought to be 48% (5) higher than equivalents using other channels.

Other types of returns fraud include the return of shoplifted and stolen goods, which is an attempt to turn crime into cash, and the return of goods purchased with stolen credit cards. They also include returns made with counterfeit or modified receipts.

When we asked retailers specifically about returns and refund abuse, nearly half of them (47.9%) (6) chose excessive returns as one of the top two use cases they were currently experiencing.

Wardrobing returns abuse is leading to charges

Excessive returns are exactly what they sound like. Consumers order multiple items and return a large percentage of them. In some cases, they use retailers’ free returns policies to physically experience multiple items without necessarily buying anything.

Again, this is hugely expensive for retailers, who pay for transport both ways, packaging and checks on returned goods, while only occasionally making a sale. In fact, dealing with returns has become so costly and time consuming that some online stores have now started charging consumers who send items back.

According to one recent study (7), a quarter of 200 leading online retailers in the UK now charge shoppers for returning items. Last year, fashion giant Zara introduced a £1.95 charge for returning clothes bought online (though returning items in store remains free). It joins major retailers like Next in introducing such a charge (8).

A better way to reduce wardrobing returns abuse

While this strategy may be understandable, it’s seriously risky. Free returns helped drive the online shopping revolution. Honest customers presented with a return charge may feel they are being punished for nothing more than trying to find the right size shirt or the right colour blinds.

They could reasonably argue that one shop’s ‘medium’ is another’s ‘small’, or that online photographs are not always clear. Surveys suggest that consumers are less likely to use online retailers that charge for returns.

Is there a better way, then, for retailers to weed out wardrobing and those who abuse free returns policies, without punishing honest consumers? Accertify’ s CARE returns abuse solution is purpose-built for exactly these circumstances. CARE collects returns data and allows organisations to monitor, measure, and take appropriate action. Most importantly, it uses that data to help retailers identify consumers who are fraudulently or maliciously circumventing or exploiting returns policies.

In other words, Accertify CARE returns abuse protection lets you uncover bad actors – criminal or otherwise – and decide whether or not you want their business. Excessive refunds and returns are unsustainable so blocking the perpetrators might be a far better solution than charging honest customers for perfectly reasonable returns.  

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  1. National Retail Federation, Customer returns in the retail industry 2021 https://nrf.com/research/customer-returns-retail-industry
  2. Checkpoint systems survey (reported in Drapers), 2019 https://www.drapersonline.com/news/used-returns-costing-retailers-1-5bn
  3. Gartner research (reported on CNBC), 2019 https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/10/growing-online-sales-means-more-returns-and-trash-for-landfills.html
  4. National Retail Federation, Customer returns in the retail industry 2021 https://nrf.com/research/customer-returns-retail-industry
  5. National Retail Federation, Customer returns in the retail industry 2022 https://cdn.nrf.com/sites/default/files/2022-12/AR3021-Customer%20Returns%20in%20the%20Retail%20Industry_2022_Final.pdf
  6. Accertify research 2023 https://www.accertify.com/infographics/returns-abuse-a-growing-and-costly-threat-to-merchants/
  7. Parcellab (reported in Retail Gazette), 2022 https://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2022/11/end-free-returns/
  8. Fashion United UK, 2022 https://fashionunited.uk/news/retail/zara-to-charge-customers-a-fee-for-returning-goods-bought-online/2022051263063