Findings from a survey of over 2,000 US and UK consumers commissioned by Nosto whose platform is used by fashion brands such as Patagonia, Paul Smith, Pangaia, and Todd Snyder, reveals that consumers want to see how clothes look on “real people” and not just models with 59% saying virtual try-on tech that allows them to picture themselves in outfits they find online would help drive down return rates.

61% of consumers questioned in the poll think fashion retailers can cut rapidly rising e-commerce product return rates by including more post-purchase photos and videos from other customers.

The new research coincides with rising returns volumes reportedly hurting the profitability of online fashion brands such as ASOS and Boohoo, Nosto says. In the US, average e-commerce return rates jumped to 20.8% in 2021 with an estimated US$671bn worth of goods being returned.

Escalating eCommerce returns reduce profits by hiking up retailers’ delivery and warehousing spend (increasing costs by as much as 21% of a product’s order value). And there’s also the problem that returned inventory negatively impacts the environment, with annual carbon dioxide emissions from transporting returned goods in the US estimated to equate to having 3m more cars on the road.

Fashion retail brands are also increasingly conscious that performing poorly on sustainability and protecting the environment can damage their credibility. Respondents to Nosto’s survey were more than twice as likely to agree that returns are bad for the environment (49%) than disagree (17%) on the basis that returns waste fuel, packaging and other resources.

“Polished, studio imagery has been the default way to show clothes off on eCommerce stores. But supplementing this with customers’ own imagery gives shoppers a more accurate reflection of how products are worn in everyday situations, and by ‘everyday people who also own the items,” says Damien Mahoney, chief strategy officer of Nosto.

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“That’s why fashion retailers are leveraging customers’ visual user generated content (UGC) on their websites, such as the post-purchase selfies they encourage customers to share on Instagram. The savviest retailers are also encouraging their customers to comment on the products’ fit or share their measurements within captions, so others can make comparisons that better inform purchase decisions and therefore lessen return rates.”

Separate research conducted last year by Stackla, the visual UGC platform (now part of Nosto) indicates that consumers are very happy to let fashion retailers use their post purchase selfies – 58% would give permission to a brand to use images of their fashion purchases as part of their marketing.

Alongside using more UGC, nearly half (49%) of consumers questioned in Nosto’s survey agreed that charging customers for returns — or stopping free returns, as Zara started doing recently and Boohoo is following suit — can stem the flow of products fashion shoppers send back by making them think more carefully about whether they’re going to keep a product before they place an order, thus lowering return rates.

And the research suggests that retailers must continue to pay close attention to some of the more basic tactics to help keep return rates down. This includes taking steps to ensure online information is clear, accurate and detailed (66%), orders are not damaged before being sent and that correct items are packed (66%).