It’s the bane of every online shopper’s existence: You get what you ordered but decide it’s not for you. Then you have to repackage, relabel, and reship the thing to get your money back.
The nuisance of returning online purchases is a problem that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic as e-commerce sales surged, and some customers end up keeping products they don’t really want to avoid the whole affair. According to a 2022 survey by the shopping platform Slickdeals, two in three Americans feel that returns are the worst part of the shopping experience.
The startup, based in New Jersey, is aiming to be the full-service middleman of online returns, streamlining the process for consumers. The company, which launched last June and caters to the Boston area, is app-based: Shoppers download ReturnQueen, link it to their Gmail account, and the program uses encrypted algorithms to scour their inboxes for purchase invoices (and nothing else, they promise), which it sorts by how soon the return deadline is coming up.
Customers can then select which products they want to return and schedule a date and time for a ReturnQueen driver to pick it up. No need to repack or print out any return labels: For Boston-area customers, all that happens in under 24 hours at ReturnQueen’s Salem processing center, where they ship products back to the retailer using the information from users’ e-mails. Just leave the return on your doorstep and wait for the refund to arrive.
“Our mission is to make returning as easy as shopping,” said Daphna Englard, who cofounded the company with friend Dasya Katz. “People are like, ‘Oh, so it’s just one of my errands.’ But we say, ‘Why should that be an errand?’”
ReturnQueen employs about 25 people in the Boston area, which was one of its first markets. The startup now operates in 19 states and services about 10,000 zip codes — more than 450 in Massachusetts. The app now has 12,000 registered users, and 2,000 of the app installations have been from Boston.
“Especially in this type of economy, they should be not losing their money on things that they don’t want,” Katz said.
The pair said the appeal of the app is similar to that of Instacart, which allows people to remotely order their groceries for delivery. The app allows customers to pay $9 per pickup, or opt for a membership for unlimited pickups ($20 a month or $100 a year). It’s not quite free returns, but it probably costs less than keeping something you don’t actually want.
“One sweater that you don’t return, one blender, or whatever it may be, honestly pays for your entire year membership of unlimited returns,” Katz said.
In addition to easing the return process for shoppers, the pair is also beginning to market their service to retailers, many of which struggle with the cost and logistics of processing returns.
A report from the National Retail Federation found that an average of 16.5 percent of purchases ended up returned in 2022. Estimates vary on how much “free returns” cost retailers, but it’s not always worthwhile for them to accept unwanted merchandise: Some larger retailers have begun implementing “returnless refunds,” where they give the customer their money back but tell them to keep the item. In other cases, returns end up in landfills.
As a third-party service, ReturnQueen could defray some of those costs for retailers and speed up the process, Katz and Englard say, by ferrying the returns directly to nearby warehouses or brick-and-mortar locations. This would remove the need for retailers to pay for each and every return shipping label.
For returned products that would potentially otherwise become waste, ReturnQueen could direct them to other destinations, such as local charities — a critical selling point, Englard said, since “a lot of retailers now are looking into circular economy,” Englard said.
As ReturnQueen continues to grow, the cofounders are now beta testing in-store returns: Drivers bring unwanted items directly back to brick-and-mortar locations, so you don’t have to schlep back to the mall if a store doesn’t take shipped returns. In the Boston market specifically, Englard and Katz hope to explore how to make the service available to the city’s sizable student population, many of whom live in campus environments.
Above all, the pair said, they hope ReturnQueen can take one item off people’s to-do lists.
“It’s basically like shopping from your couch and returning from your couch,” Katz said, “which is what we set out to achieve.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.