“Return to Sender?” What You Need to Know About International Returns

570x300 EW International ReturnsYou want your customers to love what you sell. But what happens if your product is damaged during shipping or the buyer has second thoughts on the purchase and wants to make a return – and that buyer happens to be in a different country? Processing international returns can be time-consuming and costly, so it’s wise to consider and plan for your international return options before transactions occur. 

Your First Step: Create Your Policy

  • Decide whether to accept international returns in the first place. It’s every e-commerce seller’s prerogative to determine return policies, and when you’re selling internationally, there’s an extra level of consideration due to cost and hassle on your end. Whatever your choice of policy is, make sure it’s clearly stated in your terms of service as well as in personal communications with the buyer. It doesn’t have to be wordy and full of legalese – keep it easy to understand, since it is possible the verbiage could be translated into multiple languages.
  • Specify who pays return shipping charges. If you do choose to accept returns, lay out the groundwork of what buyers should expect.  In general, most e-commerce sellers require the buyer to pay for shipping fees on any returned product.

When Return Requests Occur

  • Stick to your policies – that’s why they’re in place – but also try to work with your buyer when possible. It’s good for business, and good for your feedback. International buyers pay a lot of money to receive a product from the U.S. with product cost, shipping fees and customs, duties and taxes. Many times, an international buyer can turn into a repeat buyer of your products, so try to work with them in the event of any returned product. Depending on the shipping costs, some sellers may pay a portion of the return shipping fees or a portion of the customs, duties and taxes. Your actions may vary on a case-by-case basis, so review each situation carefully. You can always fall back on your stated policy, but exercising a little good faith for a valued customer is a nice touch.
  • Act quickly. Clear and frequent communication with your buyer can smooth over many potential disputes. If you accept returns but only within a specific timeframe, start the process early so you and your customer don’t get caught up in possible shipping or paperwork delays across borders.
  • Specify your return packaging shipping conditions upfront. If you’ve packed your product with care, you’ll want it returned to you in the same condition as you sent it. Unless you specify a certain shipping carrier or service level, your merchandise could find its way back to you stuffed in an envelope or tattered box – especially if the buyer is footing the bill for the return shipping! (Bear in mind that your international customers usually don’t have the shipping knowledge you do as an e-commerce seller.)

When Your Buyer Rejects Your Shipment

Sometimes, if a buyer has second thoughts about an international purchase after it’s already been mailed, or decides the customs/duties are too expensive after the sale is final, he or she may simply refuse the shipment altogether.

But what does this mean for you as a seller? If you’re lucky, the package will be returned to you unopened without delay, but expect to be dinged for the return shipping when you pick it up at your local post office. (Some higher-priced options, like USPS’s Express Mail International, include free return shipping for refused packages.) Worst-case scenarios include having the package legally opened – and potentially damaged – by the receiving postal officer, having the package shipped back to you using the cheapest and slowest option, or the shipment being discarded, auctioned off or destroyed. It’s a frustrating and often expensive lesson to learn as a seller.

Here are some rejected-shipment examples for English-speaking countries that many e-business owners frequently work with.

  • Australia. If a return address is available, the package is returned to the sender at your expense – as if the original transaction was between the Australia Post and you! However, without a return address, the package will be destroyed.
  • Canada. Unclaimed packages or those with unpaid customs/duties are returned to you after 30 days at your expense. Be forewarned: This return may carry a charge. However, when a package is marked “abandon” by the intended recipient, Canada Post will automatically destroy your package.
  • United Kingdom: For 18 days, the Royal Mail retains unclaimed packages at the local Delivery Office, and then returns them to the sender at the sender’s expense. If the sender can’t be determined, the package may be stored for up to four months, and then destroyed by the Royal Mail.

In all of the cases above, assuming that you’ve provided your return address on the package, you’re likely going to have to eat the return shipping cost. Bear in mind that some countries’ postal services reserve the right to open packages to determine from where it’s shipped. Be mindful of delayed delivery pitfalls as well. If you put off shipping or choose a slower option, out of frustration your buyer might reject delivery outright. Once again, you’re faced with the hassle of having your merchandise returned to you, disposed of or destroyed.

When your product is back in your hands, carefully note its condition, regardless of whether you’re in a return-shipping dispute and/or hope to relist it. Two trips across international borders are enough to make anyone frazzled, and your merchandise is no exception!

In Summary

  • Clearly state your return policy on your store website and in communications with the buyer, including who’s responsible for customs and duties.
  • If you choose not to accept international returns, consider adding a disclaimer that buyers will be responsible for tariffs, customs and legal issues such as border seizure.

If you accept international returns and the buyer has a legitimate reason for requesting it, consider paying for return shipping on a case-by-case basis to keep good customers happy and protect your feedback rating.