‘No-Box, No-Label’ Returns is becoming the standard for e-commerce

  • FedEx will launch its own no-box, no-label returns service in 2023, the company announced Monday.
  • UPS and Amazon already offer versions of this service for some returns.
  • “This is the bar now,” a returns expert told Insider.

Starting next year, retailers will be able to partner with FedEx to allow consumers to bring their unwanted e-commerce orders to FedEx Office stores without a box or shipping label.

Instead of printing a label, putting the unwanted item back in the box, taping it all over and picking it up or dropping it off, consumers simply walk into a FedEx office location, hand over the item, present a QR code code provided by the seller, and walk away empty handed.

FedEx is just the latest logistics player to emphasize the “no-box, no-label” return. UPS offers it on eligible items from participating retailers and has been a drop-off option for Amazon returns for years. Amazon also allows consumers to return items without packaging at Whole Foods, Kohl’s stores and some Staples locations.

Tony Sciarrotta, president of the Reverse Logistics Association, tells Insider that the service is becoming increasingly important in e-commerce. For starters, printing labels – even for free – at home is becoming less and less convenient as fewer and fewer people own a printer or go to offices that have one.

“You have to be at that bar or higher. It’s not just free returns — it’s free returns with no box. Just drop it off with no packaging,” Sciarrotta said. “There’s no doubt consumers will love this simplicity.”

FedEx launched a similar service in 2020 with the startup Happy Returns, but today’s announcement is the first home-built offering and an expansion of the program, the company said. Happy Returns, a startup founded in 2015 and acquired by Paypal in 2021, pioneered this strategy with its “return bars” in malls and stores, offering “no-box, no-label” returns for dozens of brands such as Levi’s and Everlane.

No printer, no problem

Dropping the label and box requirements will require some changes from logistics companies and retailers, but it can also bring new efficiencies.

Accepting unboxed items allows returns to be consolidated at the delivery point. For example, at Whole Foods stores, where Amazon returns can be issued, consumers can watch an associate scan the item’s barcode and a QR code from the consumer’s phone, then place the item in a large cardboard box with other returns from drop customers.

The large box of consolidated returns is often sent to a dedicated returns warehouse, where the lack of packaging for each item reduces processing time.

FedEx’s announcement indicates that this consolidation strategy is making the return service cheaper for retailers – a major concern as the ever-growing return shipments are taking a bigger bite out of retailers’ profits.

It’s still up to the retailers

While UPS and FedEx both offer a no-box, no-label return option, retailers are still required to sign up – so not all returns are eligible for this service.

And while this simpler model is evolving into the industry standard, it’s hardly universal and also has drawbacks.

First, Sciarrotta said, the smoother returns become, the less likely the reason for the return will be traced and actively considered. In a store, he said, employees can find out why an item is being returned and direct the customer to another product that might correct the problem. A 30-second interaction at a counter is incredibly efficient, but doesn’t make a trade or up-sale likely.

Second, simpler returns can easily encourage fraud without proper checks, Sciarrotta said. “Fraudulent reports are on the rise,” he said. “It’s impossible for a Kohl’s clerk, a UPS agent or a FedEx agent to scan a QR code and know that what they’re going to get is the right thing. You’re making it easier for people and they’re going to take advantage of .”

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