The Bay partners with ReturnBear to streamline return process for online orders

If new clothes ordered digitally don't fit, Rebecca Thomas will either return them to a store or toss them in a donation box.

"I'm just putting brand new items with tags still on in a giveaway pile," said Thomas, a Dartmouth, N.S., resident in her late 30s. "I will not go to Canada Post."

Returning online orders can be a hassle: Interpreting return policies, wading through cardboard boxes and plastic pouches, finding packing tape and a printer — with ink — to print off return labels and then trekking to the post office.

Even orders that can be returned at stores are increasingly met with shorter return windows.

Shoppers in Canada are also sometimes charged fees to return unwanted items, or provided with store credit rather than a refund.

"Historically Canadians have been in some ways underserved as a consumer market," said Sylvia Ng, chief executive officer at ReturnBear, a Toronto-based online returns service provider.

"Canadians have been dealing with very high shipping costs generally, compared to south of the border."

As some retailers look to tighten return policies, The Bay says it's making things easier for customers.

The store has teamed up with ReturnBear to streamline the process, making it faster and simpler to return items purchased online, the company said.

Many items purchased on the store's website, including purchases from some marketplace sellers, can now be returned using ReturnBear technology, the retailer said.

Shoppers who decide not to keep an item bought online can start a return in their order history. It will generate a QR code that customers can have scanned on their phone when they return the item to a Hudson's Bay department store, the company said.

They can also print a return label in their order history and mail the item at a post office.

"Returns are such a key part of the customer experience when you shop," Margot Johnson, chief business officer at The Bay, said in an interview.

"Returns are a natural part of shopping online and we really want to make returns faster and simpler."

The Bay opened its website to third-party sellers in 2021.

The move added hundreds of new brands and thousands of items to its online assortment of products. But it left customers to read the fine print of each seller's shipping and return policy.

The partnership with ReturnBear will simplify this process for shoppers, Johnson said.

"A huge part has really been standardizing and simplifying returns," she said. "With this change, in most cases the customer can expect the same thing whether they bought it from The Bay directly or The Bay through a seller."

So far, about 60 per cent of The Bay's marketplace sellers will be part of the ReturnBear process, Johnson said.

That's expected to climb to about 80 per cent of third-party sellers, with most exceptions involving heavy and bulky items, she said.

Under the new ReturnBear process, about a third of sellers will offer free returns, while the rest will offer a lower, flat-rate fee for returns, Johnson said.

The ReturnBear process helps lower the cost of returns for sellers — savings which get passed on to customers, ReturnBear chief executive Ng said.

"We increase the efficiency of the return process to lower the overall cost," she said.

Online orders sold directly by The Bay are always eligible for free in-store returns, with the exception of final sale items, custom orders and some large items like furniture.

Meanwhile, the partnership also helps ReturnBear to expand its footprint across the country.

ReturnBear drop-off points at Hudson’s Bay stores will also accept and process returns from other brands in the ReturnBear network, the company said.

The first ReturnBear locations have already opened in several Hudson's Bay department stores near the online pickup kiosks, with the rest to follow in the coming months.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.

Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press