Thank you to my editor, Alan Henry, and Wired for publishing my article: “Move Over Amazon. Other Retailers Are Catching Up. Not only are orders and returns easier than ever, today’s best retail apps also offer loyalty programs with discounts and rewards.”
DURING THE HEIGHT of the Covid-19 pandemic, with dressing rooms closed and events canceled, I did not think much about my closet. As a travel writer, I’m used to being on the go, but my trips were all canceled and I barely got out of my pajamas. Like most people, I worked, studied, and shopped from home. Then I found out that I was a finalist for the Southern California Journalism Awards, and that the ceremony would be in person at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel. In person. Not only did I want to go, I also wanted to rock a new look.
This was when shopping in person was still a tricky situation, or trickier than it is currently. My sister suggested shopping through the Macy’s mobile app, so I looked online at the sale dresses and found several I liked. Then the app said I had free shipping and a 25-percent-off coupon, so I just kept adding dresses to my cart. After all, you can’t tell how a dress will fit from a few photos. Then, because I had attended a pandemic funeral and realized that everything I owned in black also had sequins or sparkles—not exactly funeral attire—I added three basic black dresses as well.
Somehow, 20 dresses arrived in seven different packages from all over the country. It hit home that I had really ordered every blue dress that Macy’s carried, in a variety of sizes. For one dress that I particularly liked, I had ordered two different sizes, in both navy blue and teal, so four versions of that dress arrived on hangers at my door.
My sister was coming into town for a family event, so she and my mom came over and watched me try on every single dress. We turned it into a bit of a Cinderella moment, where we took photos to send to my friends who wanted to participate remotely. I felt like I was having my 15 minutes of fame with my very own movie montage, in which the women go into the dressing room in their street clothes and come out in outfit after outfit that makes them look and feel great.
Like any dressing room session, some dresses were too small, some were too big, and some were just not right.
After we separated the dresses into piles of “absolutely not,” “maybe,” and “could-be-good-for-a-trip-but-not-the-awards,” I found a stunning dress. It needed to be tailored since it was too long, but it looked great and I felt great in it.
For shoes, I decided first that I wanted to return all the dresses I didn’t want to keep before I bought more. I took them all to Macy’s online return desk for an immediate refund to my credit card, and found two sparkly pairs of shoes, also at Macy’s, to consider. I also ordered four from Zappos, which arrived quickly and unfortunately had to be returned just as fast.
The big takeaway from this whole session is that retail apps—Amazon not withstanding, of course—make shopping from any retailer easier than it’s ever been, and seamless even when it comes to returning unwanted purchases. My house is now my dressing room. There is no harsh lighting, no line to wait in, and no store without your size. I always hated when I was in a store and found something I loved but they only had two sizes, too big or too small, and I went home more disappointed than if I’d never found the item at all. Now, if you need the next-size jeans, you can just open the app and have a new pair on the way before you’ve even taken off the first one.
The other benefit of these apps is their loyalty programs. Just like airlines, they have points, rewards, and coupons. There is always a new deal to check out, and if you find a dress you love but can’t afford, you can sign up to be notified when it goes on sale for the next awards ceremony. I love the free shipping, easy returns, and having the right size appear at my door. So many retailers have caught on now that, even if there weren’t a global pandemic at play, I wouldn’t want to shop in person if I didn’t have to.
Of course, none of this implies that the apps, or their catalogs, are perfect. One downside is that it is very easy to end up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars in your cart even if you are just browsing—and if you don’t try on the items and return them quickly, you can end up paying for the convenience, even if you ultimately send most of your order back.
In its fifth-annual State of Returns Report, which captured sentiment from more than 1,000 consumers in the United States, the post-purchase pioneer Narvar reported that 52 percent of consumers plan to shop more online and less in stores this year, 37 percent plan to shop earlier this year and will prioritize retailers that offer clear delivery estimates, and 35 percent won’t make a purchase if they do not know when the item will arrive.
Macy’s is expanding their digital footprint by partnering with Mirakl for a curated digital marketplace that will “expand the company’s assortment in existing categories and brands and introduce a range of new categories, by enabling carefully selected third-party merchants to sell their products on Macys.com and Bloomingdales.com,” says Matt Baer, chief digital and customer officer at Macy’s. He says that Macy’s “digital business is targeted to generate $10 billion in sales by 2023.”
This holiday season, Target is also leaning into giving customers more online-friendly options, including new features to make the shopping experience even more convenient and easier, whether you want to visit a brick-and-mortar store or not. You can order same-day pickup, and even same-day delivery via Shipt, with most orders delivered or ready for pickup within just a few hours. New this holiday season, you can also add grocery items to your order to make sure you get everything on your list. If you need extra help to complete your Target run, the Shopping Partner tool allows a friend or family member to pick up your order for you. Retailers are working to make it right.
Fortunately, most retailers have taken a cue from Amazon and made it very easy to return what you don’t need. For Macy’s, you simply need to mail your returns or bring them back before 60 days and in saleable condition with tags still attached. Zappos offers a full refund within 365 days of purchase as long as items are unworn and in their original packaging. Almost all online retailers, from The North Face to Old Navy, now offer prepaid shipping labels and will also take online returns in store for an immediate credit. One friend told me that during the pandemic, Nordstrom became the one-stop shop for everyone in her family because she could order 10 pairs of sneakers for her 6-year-old, get them two days later, then keep one and return the rest all in the span of a week—no shoe-department meltdowns or hand sanitizer required.
The Narvar report also found that about 60 percent of shoppers are like me and buy multiple items (called bulk ordering or bracketing) at the same time, with the intent to return some items—like I did with my 20 dresses. Seventy-two percent of bracketers are doing it more than last year, mostly because they cannot try things on in store (36 percent) or are not familiar with the brand (26 percent).
In order to make sure you get your money back, always check the dates on the return policy, and do not wear the items or remove the tags. And don’t let convenience trick you into spending more than you otherwise would, or should. It can be thrilling to turn your home into a personalized dressing room, full of only clothes you want to wear, but make sure that actually works for you and makes your life easier before changing the way you shop.
Lisa Niver is always exploring new technology, books and places to travel. She is writing a memoir about reinvention after 50.