In an attempt to reduce the number of returns, the owner of a bookstore shortened his returning deadline from 30 to 12 days. But against all odds, the returns increased. Resulting from these counter-intuitive findings, further research was conducted. This provided insight into the influence of returning period on the number of returns (Janakiraman, 2012). The explanation of the effect is quite typically human: it is related to procrastination and the effort it takes to return something.

Researching the link between returning deadline and the number of returns

In an experiment, participants received a pen that could be returned. For half of the group, the returning period was short (2 days) while for the other half of the group it was long (7 days). The results showed that more people returned the pen when the returning period was short. A longer returning period thus lead to fewer returns. The effort it takes to return seems to justify this effect. If something can be returned easily, a shorter returning period leads to more returns. As a consequence of a short returning deadline, customers are more rushed to bring back their purchased items. Whereas with a longer returning period, people tend to procrastinate and cancel returning altogether.

 When the effort to return is low and the time to return is long, the number of returned pens decreases

When the effort to return is high and the period is long, the number of returned items increases

Effort to return is influential

The effort it takes to return is related to several factors. For example, the number of stores in the area plays a role. If there are only a few locations where you can return the purchased item, it will take more effort to return. In addition, keeping the receipts can also make the process of returning more difficult. Therefore, using digital receipts may be a smart solution. In some cases, it is only possible to get money back in vouchers or gift cards. This forces a customer to make a new purchase, costs more effort and is not considered to be part of a lenient return policy.


returnOnline orders increase

Online orders also increase as a result of a longer returning period (Wood, 2001). Because the product can easily be returned, the threshold to buy is lower. Consequently, people experience fewer doubts during the process of purchasing. Although the number of orders increases, the number of returns don’t. So more sales!


Shortening deadlines leads to better results

In the book ‘The small BIG’, social psychologist Cialdini describes a similar effect regarding deadlines in organizational settings. Shortened deadlines increase the chance of on-time submission. This is because things in the near future are imagined more concretely. In contrast to the far future, which is imagined in more abstract terms. So even though it might seem intuitive that longer deadlines lead to more timely submissions, this isn’t the case. More interesting findings from Cialdini that influence our (purchasing) behavior can be read here and here. These techniques can regularly be applied in our consulting practices.

Conclusion: implement a longer returning deadline and make the processes of returning easy

Since the process of returning is usually quite easy, it is a good idea to maintain a longer returning period. As a consequence, fewer items will be returned. In cases where on-time submission is desired, it is advised to shorten the deadline. A manager or a project leader would therefore be smart to avoid setting deadlines too far ahead in the future.

Want to know more about an optimal return policy for your webshop? Contact us here!




  • Janakiraman, N., & Ordóñez, L. (2012). Effect of effort and deadlines on consumer product returns. Journal of Consumer Psychology22(2), 260-271.
  • Martin, S.J., Goldstein, N., Cialdini, R.B.: The Small BIG: Small Changes that Spark Big Influence. Grand Central Publishing, New York (2014)
  • Wood, S. L. (2001). Remote purchase environments: The influence of return policy leniency on two-stage decision processes. Journal of Marketing Research38(2), 157-169.