*UPS Introduces Returns Solution

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United Parcel Service, Atlanta, announced yesterday a service designed to help e-tailers manage their returns more efficiently.


The service allows consumers to print labels from their PCs, and provides a list of color maps to nearby UPS drop-off locations. Alternatively, UPS return packages can be handed directly to one of UPS' 70,000 drivers. Shoppers can then track packages from the merchant's site or from UPS' Web site at www.ups.com. Businesses may choose from guaranteed UPS Ground, Next Day Air, 2nd Day Air or 3 Day Select services.


"This is a perfect example of how UPS is using technology to develop and capture a growing business that's being fueled by e-commerce," said Ross McCullough, vice president of e-commerce at UPS, which ships more than half the purchases made over the Internet. "In the process, we reduce costs and add value for our business customers while greatly enhancing the online experience for consumers."


The service also allows merchants to keep track of their returns inventory -- even those routing returns back to multiple suppliers -- and analyze returns data for customer behavior and logistics trends.


Through the service, a customer requests a return on a merchant's Web site. The merchant's system then processes the return request according to its business rules. Based on the merchant's return policy, an electronic request is sent as an Extensible Markup Language document to UPS systems, which responds with the appropriate label.


This shipping label appears on the customer's monitor with instructions and a link to addresses and maps to UPS drop-off locations. The return shipping label can then be printed on the customer's PC printer on a regular letter-size sheet of paper. The system also allows a customer service representative to e-mail the customer a URL that provides the online shipping label.


According to UPS, this entire process shouldn't take more than four minutes.


The merchant electronically receives the information on what is being returned, when and for what reason. For example, if a customer returns a CD player because he "changed his mind," the system will ship it back to the merchant for re-stocking. If it's returned because it's defective, the system will know which manufacturer it goes back to so it can be returned under warranty.


When the merchant receives the package, transportation charges are billed and the customer's account or credit card can be credited for the returned merchandise. Merchants are billed a transaction fee for each return in addition to transportation charges, which are billed once the merchant receives the returned package.


UPS said it is accepting a limited number of customers through year-end as the service ramps up. UPS will begin offering the service on a broader basis during the first quarter of 2001.


In the meantime, Internet superstore buy.com, which offers 950,000 products through 11 online specialty stores, has been piloting the new service since June on its e-commerce portal. The company said the service helped it to reduce buy.com's incoming returns calls by 40 percent.


"At buy.com we're focused on providing our customers with superior online service throughout the purchase life cycle -- even when the cycle includes a return," said Tom Wright, vice president of operations at buy.com, Aliso Viejo, CA. "UPS' Web returns program has helped us increase customer satisfaction at the same time we're reducing our returns costs and improving our inventory management."


UPS' system has more features than the U.S. Postal Service's returns service -- Returns@ease, which was launched late last year.


Returns@ease also allows a customer to print out a return label via the Web to apply to the package being returned. The package can then be given to a letter carrier, dropped in a collection box or taken to the nearest post office. The service is free to customers and does not require additional hardware or software. But there is a minimum charge of 30 cents per return, plus postage, for retailers.
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