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Allen Adamson

Co-Founder and Managing Partner

What Amazon And Other Online Retailers Are Missing To Drive Growth

"Necessity is the mother of invention" may be a well-worn proverb, but this expression's reality was significantly tested during the pandemic. When the need to do something differently became imperative, we were all forced to find new ways to get or achieve it. Some of these things were more consequential than others, the reinvention of the schoolroom and the workplace, for example, and, obviously, the attainment of healthcare. As for other everyday activities, we quickly came up with workarounds. The way we shopped, for instance, which, then, necessitated a lot of sending back items that didn't meet our expectations. Suffice it to say; we were all doing a lot of online ordering – and returning.


We are still doing a lot of online ordering and returning. And, although not generally out of necessity anymore, nor at quite the volume we experienced during the pandemic, the practice has still accelerated. This rapid growth of e-commerce and online shopping has brought about a significant rethink in how we consume, spawning an entirely new world of retail and adjacent services, predominantly on the buying side. There has been little inventiveness when it comes to the process of sending all those boxes and packages back. The one segment of this category that seems to have been overlooked by retailers and marketers alike is the area of returns.


Customers certainly want to be sure they can return items easily and conveniently if unsatisfied with a purchase. A complicated returns process for many people negates the benefit of shopping online in the first place. But, ultimately, nothing much has changed in the category, whether it's free returns, being able to download a barcode, or tracking a package on its way back. A sea of sameness from one retailer to the next; it's free; here's a label, take it to UPS, or pop it into a FedEx drop box. A herd mentality, table stakes, at best.

Like it or not, we have all become shipping and receiving professionals. This is not an issue for one or two packages a week. But has any marketer taken a hard look at what's been happening out there over the past couple of years? Has anyone looked at the consumer experience? For example, the lengthy lines at the post office and similar outposts. Or, the city apartment buildings where boxes and packages of every shape and size surround doormen.

Visiting my daughter at college recently, I walked to her sorority house. I saw boxes from every conceivable retailer piled high by the door and used shipping boxes inside every corner. There was no printer to be found and I suspect that no one in the house has ever been to a post office. 


No one is paying attention to the more significant consumer issue in the macro sense, the accumulating parcels and the cumulative effect of this new way of shopping. Marketers are supposed to solve problems. Who is looking to solve this one? 


This topic was part of an interesting conversation with Sam Sterling, a Managing Director of Strategy at AKQA, a design and company owned by WPP. Sam has worked in Shanghai for many years, one of the world's most rapidly growing and quickly changing marketplaces. Her job as a strategist requires her to get inside consumers' heads to create initiatives that are compelling and, more broadly, to help brands stay different and relevant. Relative to the new consumption models, she emphasized that it's essential to have a clear understanding of customer needs and preferences, including how they shop, how they want to receive their purchases, and what their expectations are for returns and sustainability. 


She and I agreed that it's too easy to say this can be achieved through customer research, data analysis, and feedback mechanisms. Realistically, the answer is as banal and time-consuming as good old-fashioned observation and personal experience. Paying heed to those long lines at the post office, or the doormen inundated by mounds of parcels should indicate the opportunities for a better solution. Similarly, the necessity for providing personal data and the rising awareness of the vulnerabilities of an increased "digital footprint," should prove fertile ground for reinvention. As she put it, someone should be on the lookout for "what comes next."

That said, the trick is in being able to see, and then seize, an opportunity before someone else does. This requires breaking from the herd in both perspective and creativity and looking through a different lens than the competition. When it comes to the return process, many businesses offer incremental changes, such as drop-off points at convenient locations and even at-home pick-up services. However, cost or economies of scale can make this difficult. And, anyway, incremental is not a game-changer. That said, we are witnessing the beginning of a wave of third-party businesses emerging – those reimagining the process of sending back unwanted goods. Among them is ReturnQueen, which acts as an interface layer between consumer and retailer, handling the legwork associated with preparing a return.

Launched in 2021 by Dasya Katz and Daphna Englard, two moms with kids, hectic schedules, and endless items to return, they thought: Wouldn't it be nice if you could tap a button to make all the boxes disappear – and watch the refunds roll in? Their mission was to "provide fast, easy, stress-free returns for all." Whether a parent in desperate need of more free time, someone with back-to-back meetings, or somebody who prefers to order two sizes and three colors in the same style, ReturnQueen is an excellent example of Sam's "what comes next" in the area of returns management.

Yes, ReturnQueen is a small start-up, but its launch demonstrates that someone is paying attention. The founders spotted a consumer problem before any of the larger players in the category did and are aiming to deliver an easier and more convenient way to send back the stuff we order and don't want. These marketers looked at what consumers were experiencing and, rather than making incremental changes, took steps to wholly reinvent the category. Whether ReturnQueen will succeed is yet to be seen, but at least they're trying. Whether the bigger players, Amazon or FedEx or eBay or anyone with extensive logistics expertise will jump into the market is also yet to be seen. The bottom line is that ReturnQueen took a break from the herd. Good old-fashioned observation of consumer behavior, along with personal necessity, led them to an inventive opportunity that others did not see, let alone seize. I wish them well in their venture (and am glad to relinquish my role as household manager of shipping and receiving).

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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