Buyers beware: Some major retailers are adjusting their shipping return policies, meaning free online returns could become a thing of the past.
Zara, Abercrombie & Fitch and J.Crew are already charging shipping fees to return items by mail.
The popularity of online shopping soared during the COVID-19 pandemic -- and so did online returns.
The National Retail Federation reported that $218 billion worth of online purchases were returned in 2021, more than double the year before.
"All signs point to the era of free returns probably coming to an end in the near future," said Avery Hartmans, a senior reporter with Business Insider. "They're costing retailers millions of dollars every year, and that's because shipping has gotten more expensive. Labor has gotten more expensive as well."
According to Hartmans' reporting, many shoppers do what's called "bracketing," or buying the same clothing items in different sizes and colors and later returning what they no longer want and doesn't fit.
H&M announced on a recent earnings call that it will test a fee to ship back returns in certain markets. Zara's already charging customers $3.95 for any returns to a drop-off point; Abercrombie & Fitch, a $7 shipping fee to return; J.Crew, a $7.50 prepaid label; and JCPenney, a $8 flat shipping rate.
"I think, eventually, they'll just end up paying for it because consumers want to shop and they want to make sure that they are returning the items that they don't want anymore," said Hitha Herzog, chief retail analyst at DONEGER | TOBE.
Experts say there are still ways to avoid those costs.
Most retailers allow shoppers to return online purchases for free at brick-and-mortar stores.
Also, customers can see if the store will do free shipping for exchanges rather than returns.
Finally, shoppers should make returns within a 30-day window.