Customers' perceptions of returning items purchased online: planned versus unplanned product returners

Timo Rintamäki*, Mark T. Spence, Hannu Saarijärvi, Johanna Joensuu, Mika Yrjölä

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)
179 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: The purpose of this study is to address two issues relevant to those managing product returns: (1) how customers perceive the returning process and assessing the extent that these perceptions have on satisfaction with the organization, loyalty and word-of-mouth (WOM) and (2) are these outcomes moderated by whether customer returns were planned or unplanned? 

Design/methodology/approach: The data consisted of 21 semi-structured interviews (pilot study) and a quantitative survey (n = 384; main study) targeted at consumers who had bought fashion items online. 

Findings: Qualitative insights revealed that perceptions of the returning experience are driven by monetary costs, convenience, stress and guilt. Quantitative findings showed that the returning experience explains return satisfaction for both planned and unplanned returners, and returning satisfaction explains overall satisfaction and WOM. The noteworthy difference concerns loyalty: although customers that planned to return items are more loyal to the organization, it is the unplanned returners whose loyalty can be significantly increased by better managing the returning process. 

Practical implications: Returning products online is increasingly common and thus forms an important part of the customer's overall experience with an organization. Returns management can therefore drive key customer outcomes. Understanding the dynamics between the product return experience, return satisfaction and customer outcomes will help practitioners design and implement more informed returns management strategies. Measures are also presented that assess the cognitive and emotional aspects associated with returning products. 

Social implications: Returning products is an increasingly important challenge for online retailers. Understanding what kinds of returning behaviors occur allows companies to design and execute better informed decisions to manage this phenomenon, not only for the sake of firm performance but also for societal and environmental benefits – the triple bottom line. 

Originality/value: While scholars have investigated the relationship between return policies (e.g. free vs fee) and profitability, no prior literature has examined the returning experience: how consumers perceive the returning process; motivations for their returns (whether returns were planned or not) and subsequent customer outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403-422
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Journal of Physical Distribution and Logistics Management
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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