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How the ‘AWS’ of Fulfillment Aims to Simplify Painful Post-Purchase Returns

The growth in online shopping since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced another side effect that has always been a thorn in the side of e-commerce players, particularly in apparel—returns. As more shoppers conduct the entire purchasing journey online without even so much as trying a product on, the post-purchase experience becomes an even greater concern that retailers must tackle head on.

Fulfillment technology and services provider MasonHub, which counts intimates startup Mindd among its clients, is looking to take the pain out of this post-purchase process for consumers by integrating Returnly, a solution provider aiming to take the friction out of e-commerce returns. Donny Salazar, MasonHub founder and CEO, estimates that as many as 30 to 40 percent of customer service contacts in retail are related to returns.

“Returns in retail are table stakes,” Salazar told Sourcing Journal. “Everyone has to offer it if they want to be a successful business. The post-purchase experience has been notoriously painful from the process of just creating return labels, to processing it in the fulfillment center and then automating those return processes. Imagine you are a fast-growing brand, you’re getting hundreds of returns a week, but you have to go in return by return to make sure customers are getting their refund.”

Salazar, a former director of operations at Gilt Groupe, noted that while companies like the original flash-sale innovator would have built out their own front-end returns platform, the modern API- and platform integration-driven e-commerce environment made third-party apps an easier alternative, especially for young online players trying to scale quickly while processing a growing number of orders.

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“Whereas before we just had to build it, now you could just add these apps, so it’s very user-friendly,” Salazar said. “A lot of these brands don’t necessarily have the 50 to 100 engineers that we had at Gilt, so they need these apps to be able to handle these very core pieces of an e-commerce business. Returnly has the engineers that can plug into our APIs to get all the information they need from us and vice versa to make it easy for these new entrants and new brands to help them scale their businesses.”

Since MasonHub already handled the returns process on its own, tracking carrier statuses and providing retailers with the data necessary to issue refunds to customers, Salazar saw an opportunity to combine MasonHub’s back-end expertise with Returnly’s ability to simplify the front end of the returns experience.

The integration is designed to enable MasonHub’s retail clients to automate the issuance of a return merchandise authorization (RMA), which provides the merchant with a final opportunity to diagnose and correct the customer’s problem with the product (such as improper installation or configuration) before the customer sends the product back.

“From the point at which a customer creates a return, to the point at which it comes into one of our fulfillment centers and we process it and transmit that information back to Returnly, the refund process is automated,” Salazar said. “That entire lifecycle of a return at the moment is pretty disjointed for a lot of brands. You can get a label and an RMA created, but the retailer doesn’t always know how the return is processed.”

But the kicker with the Returnly solution is that retailers can send their customers an exchanged item before receiving the original product back. The platform also connects to real-time inventory data and enables shoppers to request a change in color, style or size, through a simple, intuitive interface designed to improve the customer experience.

Returnly pays for the exchange order, so the brand doesn’t suffer a temporary revenue loss, while refunds are generated for shoppers within seconds, saving employees hundreds of hours of manual work. The integration also supports automated exchanges since both platforms have their own APIs.

“When a return is processed here in the fulfillment center, we then transmit that data back to the API into Returnly,” Salazar said. “If everything is fine with that item and there’s no exception, then the refund is processed automatically. Before, or if you were a Returnly customer, you had to figure out what MasonHub processed and then someone had to go in and click buttons to refund. Obviously, that’s not scalable.”

MasonHub itself is designed as a do-it-all logistics provider that takes over a retailer’s fulfillment operations from end to end. Salazar described the company as doing “what AWS did to the server” whereas instead of building out their own fulfillment centers, retailers can work within MasonHub’s owned locations.

Retail customers ship their stock directly to MasonHub-operated fulfillment centers, where the company’s order management system tracks inventory across all channels, down to the SKU level. MasonHub then fulfills orders for the retailer, which can access a dashboard that keeps track of multichannel inventory, pick-and-pack statuses, and carrier updates.

Salazar noted that the MasonHub platform is agnostic to hosting and integrating many returns solutions, but because many of its retail consumers already used the Returnly platform, the move seemed like a win-win for both sides.

Two of MasonHub’s retail customers, plus-size luxury e-commerce fashion retailer 11 Honoré and active swimwear brand Left on Friday, said they have already experienced significant operational improvements as a result of the new integration.