Many Unhappy Returns: Managing “Sell Stick”

Over the past year, I’ve participated in many interesting conversations (and a few debates) regarding vendors’ roles in sell-in vs. sell-through.   Day in and day out, I see how the value that vendor companies place on one or the other (and it tends to be one-sided) affects everything from organizational structure to the procurement of talent to relationships with key retailers.  The fact is, many vendors manage sell-through passively, by watching POS numbers roll in on a computer screen; they view the sell-in process is their only active responsibility.  And so it is with a grim new reality, a third leg of the sales stool that I call “sell-stick.”  The need to stick a sale and avoid returns is nothing new to retailers; however, we’re hearing that it has become nothing less than a nightmare lately as consumers take full advantage of generous return policies and second-guess even the smallest of purchases.  Buyer’s remorse is a constant reality and one that is draining the bank accounts (and morale) of commissioned sales associates along with the coffers of retailers and vendors; after all, the only thing less profitable than a lost sale is a return!  Retailers realize that cash register reassurances (“That sweater was a great choice!”) no longer have the staying power they once did as returning merchandise has morphed from a shame-filled shopper exception to a shameless entitlement.

And speaking of shameles, vendors have had to deal with the reality that no sell-in is final either as retailers cancel orders that are already on the water (or sometimes in the DC).  Now vendors are going to have to step up and actively own the process one step further, and not just by issuing return authorization numbers right and left. 

The proactive panacea for returns is deploying teams at the store level, your internal teams or sales guns for-hire, that will personalize the sales experience.  Our surveys show that consumers are still much less likely to return products when they make a personal connection during the sales process.  Many actually fear having the original sales associate execute the return and that alone is enough to make them hold tight.  Sometimes fear is a good thing; however, taking an ACTIVE role from sell-in to sell-through AND on to sell-stick will be a vendor success mandate for 2009.

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