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I've discovered the secret to worry-free online clothes shopping

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May 3rd, 2017

Zalando

I have a friend who shops in a way I never even thought was possible. She buys clothing for herself and her two kids online, like an increasing number of humans, only when she does it she orders three sizes of everything. She buys the size she thinks she needs and one size larger and one smaller. She might even toss in a variety of colors for those sizes thereby increasing her order size exponentially. Then, after receiving a truckload of boxes (I’ve seen her get as many as 20!), she'll return most of them containing all the items she doesn't like or don't fit. This seemed outrageous to me when I first heard about it. But that was before I learned her secret and realized her approach could be tempered so that it wasn’t so wasteful.

My friend shops at a site that offers free returns; something most online retailers now offer so long as you bring the boxes to a drop-off point yourself. But many online shops including Zalando, her shop of choice here in The Netherlands, will now pick up her superfluous deliveries at her house, for free, and within a one-hour scheduled window. And she has up to 100 days to do it.

I, like many of you I'd wager, buy most of my household and personal gear online — anything but clothing. Shopping for clothes has always felt too risky due to concerns about fit, textures, or the maker's ability to render the true color of the apparel on my screen. Things I needed to see in person. My friend's approach solves all that so I just had to give it a try, using my wife and daughter as proxies, of course.

My wife was recently waffling between four different models of running shoes. So instead of carving out a few hours to travel to the all the shops to try them on, she had six pairs delivered from Zalando direct to our house: four models, with two shipped in two different sizes because she wasn't familiar with the brands and whether they ran big or not. The six shoe boxes were packed and delivered in three boxes. She tried on each shoe and gave me a little fashion show to help her decide. Then, after making up her mind, she logged into Zalando and scheduled a one-hour pickup (offered here in Amsterdam and other major cities across Europe) for the same three boxes the next day, even though she still had 99 days left to return them. It was effortless and kind of fun, to be honest. The money was refunded about 10 days later. We tried again with my daughter a few days later, ordering a wider variety of things delivered in multiple sizes and even a few different colors. Again the return was just as painless. I was hooked.

I've always been someone that shops for exactly what he needs because the thought of having to process a return, especially by mail, was too daunting. Hell, I spent an hour the other day measuring my hands for a pair of neoprene gloves I needed for the cold spring waters of the North Sea. Now I feel silly for having wasted the time.

Zalando says it won't be offering the free home pick-up service forever. Its Dutch website says that the price will eventually be increased to €4.95, for example. Zara and a long list of other retailers also offer free home pickups in countries around the world. In the US, Amazon offers home pickup but charges a $6 "convenience fee" unless the return is due to an error on Amazon's part. Gap stores offer a free pick-up option for returns, but the US Postal Service will charge you $22 if you want to specify a one-hour pick-up window outside of your normal mail delivery time. Nike doesn't offer any home pick-up option at all.

I was impressed by just how easy the whole process was. Free delivery, a one-hour scheduled pick-up window from my home, and prompt refunds combine to reduce the friction of online clothes shopping to near zero. So yeah, you'd better believe I'm now checking if free home pickup is a service offered for returns when I'm shopping for clothes online — it’s a competitive advantage.

Data suggests that 30 to 40 percent of all clothing purchases made online are returned. This new approach would make that closer to 100 percent which feels icky, bordering on overconsumption. Although I'm not entirely sure my sense of guilt is warranted. Yes, it would seem to be wasteful, requiring the shipment and return of a lot of product that requires fuel. But is it, especially for those of us living in fairly dense cities?

What's worse: one truck delivering 120 sneakers to 20 people in a concentrated area, or 20 cars each driving to two or three stores to find the same shoes? I've thought about it but don't understand enough about retail logistics to answer that question. Nevertheless, I plan to use this approach sparingly as I can't see myself being as gluttonous as my friend. A scaled-down version of her over-delivery approach has provided me with the best online clothes shopping experience I've ever had. And it won’t likely improve until an Echo Look can scan my measurements for Amazon to 3D print a set of made-to-measure clothes.