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Urban Outfitters: ‘Out of the Box’ Thinking With Narvar Helped Revolutionize Returns

Consumer confidence is everything, especially during the Covid era. But to establish that assurance among shoppers, brands must take some critical steps to modernize their fulfillment processes—and their returns.

During PSFK’s Retail Innovation Week event on Monday, Amit Sharma, founder and CEO of logistics software solution Narvar, and Tracey Strober, global director of retail solutions and customer experience for Urban Outfitters, Inc., sounded off about the services and features that have saved shopping over the past year.

“There are so many learnings from 2020,” Strober said, but the need to enable an efficient returns process during a global pandemic forced Urban to “really start to think outside of the box.” The company’s portfolio of brands includes Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, BHLDN and Free People, and with the exception of subscription service Nuuly, most boast a wide and dense store footprint. “A good number” of e-commerce returns end up coming back to those store locations, Strober said.

Amid 2020’s undulating waves of retail shutdowns, Urban brands were forced to speed up returns processing at distribution centers to satisfy shoppers who were used to the instant gratification afforded by in-store transactions. The company is also working with Narvar to implement a number of solutions, like item drop-offs outside of stores, that would allow for fast processing while eliminating the “friction point” of going to a cash register.

“There is for customers this new idea of speed and convenience,” she added, and retail businesses in the Urban portfolio have had to adjust to offering a more flexible suite of options beyond simply buying in store or online. “Using stores in new ways” was a primary objective for Urban during the Covid crisis, Strober said, pointing to omnichannel solutions that the company has rolled out in recent months.

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Shoppers can now pick up orders curbside, and can have their online orders shipped to their nearest store location for pickup, too, if their desired products aren’t already available there. “We really tried to focus on the customer experience piece, and how we can make it better and more seamless,” she said. Scheduling delivery timeframes is something the company is also working on, as well as pickups for returns, with Narvar’s help.

“Shoppers are willing to pay for the convenience of same-day delivery to their homes,” Narvar’s Sharma echoed, saying that consumers have demonstrated an appetite to spend $5 or more for the service, which gives them “peace of mind” knowing that they will receive their items when they need them.

Shoppers are also quickly taking to mobile solutions like QR codes, which are used by logistics providers like FedEx, UPS and USPS, to scan packages for return in lieu of affixing shipping labels. “Prior to Covid, they may have had access to printers at their work locations,” Sharma said, but now that consumers are spending much of their time at home, they might not have the option to print out labels. Narvar’s data shows that nearly one-third of shoppers are now using QR codes and cutting out printing entirely, he said, and the technology is “accelerating the time to getting the inventory back from consumers,” making for a better overall experience.

The process of tracking both pickups and returns is also undergoing a metamorphosis, Strober said. “I think for anyone who oversees a retail business, the number one question a call center gets is ‘Where’s my package?’”

Over the years, Urban has implemented multiple touch points by email and text message to let shoppers know when their order has been dispatched and alert them to different steps on its journey. “We’ve also spent a lot of time working on chat features on the site so that you could get your status update on your package just by simply chatting, and not even necessarily talking to an associate,” she said.

The company has now implemented similar features for the curbside pickup process, she said. An email lets customers know when their order is ready for pickup, and they are directed to a landing page that allows them to check in once they’ve arrived at the store parking lot. They are instructed to fill out the make and model of their car, as well as their license plate number, so that an associate can pull their order and walk it out to them without any face-to-face contact.

According to Sharma, the key to shopper satisfaction with both fulfillment and returns is this kind of communication. Fielding shopper inquiries through texts and emails “can provide the information to set expectations,” he said, ensuring that they feel bought into the process from start to finish.