Big mall owners aim to build traffic via online returns

BY Al Urbanski

Macerich, Simon, and Westfield have all signed on for a new service that accepts returns of online purchases at their malls as a way to win a bigger share of Web-shopper’s dollars at their properties.

Santa Monica-based startup Happy Returns staffs “Return Bars” at mall kiosks and concierge stations with “Returnistas” who accept items bought online, satisfy return conditions of individual retailers, package and post them, and furnish refunds on the spot. The majority of returners end up spending those refunds before leaving the mall.

In a survey of online shoppers during six-month pilot test with the online retailer Tradesy, seven out of 10 of them told Happy Returns that they would not have visited the mall except to return their purchases. Asked if they planned to shop, eat, or see a movie while at the mall, 44% responded in the affirmative.

“This means that almost a third of returns result in incremental purchases at malls,” said David Sobie, co-founder and CEO of Happy Returns.

Sobie argued that relieving the pain of online returns is the best way to get heavy Web purchasers back into brick-and mortar. People, he said, hate having to navigate each retailer to meet their return conditions. They hate the “arts and crafts” project of re-packaging their return. Most of all, they hate waiting for the refund.

“Before we launched, we did consumer surveys asking online shoppers where they’d like our return bars to be. Overwhelmingly, shopping malls kept getting mentioned,” Sobie said. “If I buy a pair of jeans online, sure, I can package them up and send them back myself, but that doesn’t solve my problem, which is finding a pair of jeans that fit.”

Happy Returns is focusing on apparel retailers as it looks to expand its list of partners. It’s not uncommon for online apparel retailers to experience return rates of 30% to 40%, maintained Sobie, who worked for online apparel retailers HauteLook and Revolve.

For now, Happy Returns desks are found at just six malls nationwide, but Sobie aims to have 35 to 40 locations up and running in the top 15 metros by the end of 2017.

Macerich offers the service at Santa Monica Place in California, Shops at North Bridge in Chicago, Tysons Corner Center in Virginia, and Fashion Outlets of Chicago. Westfield has installed Happy Returns at its San Francisco Centre and Topanga malls in California. Just one Simon location has it in place — the Galleria in Houston.

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