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To Keep Or Not To Keep: Effects of Online Customer Reviews on Product Returns


By Madeleine van Spaendonck (365543ms)

In the US, the current average return rate for products bought online is approximately around 30% of purchases (The Economist, 2013). Most returns take place due to customers’ negative post-purchase product evaluation rather than product defects. One factor that is found to have an impact on this is the role of Online Consumer Reviews.

This is what Minnema et al. (2016) investigated in their study “To Keep or Not to Keep: Effects of Online Customer Reviews on Product Returns”. It uses a multi-year (2011-2013) dataset from a European online retailer that offers both electronics and furniture products. The paper examines the impact of three OCR characteristics (valence, volume and variance) on return decisions (figure 1). The researchers evaluate the net effect of OCRs, looking at its influence on both purchase and return decisions.

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Theory

The hypotheses examined are based on the ‘expectation disconfirmation mechanism’. Post-purchase satisfaction results from the combination of customer expectations formed at the purchase-moment, product performance, and the difference between them. Negative expectation disconfirmation therefore decreases satisfaction, leading to a higher return probability. Therefore, higher expectation levels should lead to higher purchase and return probabilities, while higher expectation uncertainty should lower these.

Main results

Figure 2 presents a summary of the results of the study.

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A particularly counterintuitive insight is that overly positive review valence (whereby the current OCR valence is higher than the long-term product average) leads to not only more sales but also a higher return probability. A potential reason for this is that OCRs induce the customer to form product expectations at the moment of purchase, leading to higher purchase probability. However, high expectations due to overly positive reviews may not be met. This leads to negative expectation confirmation, which then leads to higher return probability. Review volume and variance mostly affect purchase decisions, having little to no effect on product returns.

Strengths, Weaknesses and Suggested Improvements

While the majority of scholarly work in this field focuses on OCRs effects on product sales, this paper also addresses the lack of understanding of its effects on product returns. Taking into account both aspects is vital, because the prediction of OCR effects on retailer performance may be overly optimistic or pessimistic if only its effects on sales are considered. The study also shows that OCR effects advance beyond the moment of purchase and have the power to affect the decision to return a product. However, the model did not incorporate other information sources available at the purchase-moment that affect return-likelihood, such as product descriptions and pictures provided by the retailer. A comparative analysis could be used to evaluate whether reviews or retailer-provided information have the strongest impact on returns.

Managerial Implications

The study highlights the importance of considering product returns when evaluating OCR effects, as overly positive reviews may have negative consequences for retailers’ financial performance. Overly positive reviews, leading to more product returns, result in large reverse logistics costs. To reduce negative expectation disconfirmation, retailers should provide information and tools (besides OCRs) that allow consumers to set the right expectations and see if the product really meets their needs.

Sources:

Minnema, A., Bijmolt, T.H.A., Gensler, S., Wiesel, T. (2016). “To Keep or Not to Keep: Effects of Online Customer Reviews on Product Returns.” Journal of Retailing, 92(3), pp. 253–267.

The Economist. (2013). Return to Santa. December 21, (latest accessed March 8, 2017), http://www.economist.com/news/business/21591874-e- commerce-firms-have-hard-core-costly-impossible-please-customers- return-santa

Source for cover photo:

Ministry Ideaz, (2016), How do I return a product I no longer want? [ONLINE]. Available at: http://support.ministryideaz.com/customer/portal/articles/1022650-how-do-i-return-a-product-i-no-longer-want- [Accessed 8 March 2017].