Here's why Doordash, Narvar, and a new crop of startups are betting they can turn a profit on picking up e-commerce returns when...
May 3, 2022
E-commerce returns remain an unsolved, $500 billion problem for retailers. Players, including DoorDash and Narvar, are building services to pick up returns for consumers. Shyp, a returns-pickup startup, shut down in 2018, and CEO Kevin Gibbon called the model unworkable. The doorstep delivery giant DoorDash and the e-commerce tech juggernaut Narvar both launched services to pick up e-commerce returns from consumers this year. Since returns are a consummate problem with online shopping, and retailers want returned goods back as fast as possible , new services are always popping up, and consumer adoption is generally enthusiastic. But when the e-commerce entrepreneur Kevin Gibbon saw the news from Narvar and then DoorDash, first reported by TechCrunch , all he felt was déjà vu. Gibbon is the former CEO of Shyp, a pickup-focused logistics service that handled everything for customers with small items to ship, including returns. Founded in 2013, the service took off and had raised more than $60 million in three rounds by 2015. By 2017, it started laying off employees, and it shut down in 2018 . "Growth at all costs is a dangerous trap that many startups fall into, mine included," Gibbon wrote on LinkedIn when he announced the company's end. The startup printed the label, handled the packaging, and picked up the item to take it to the appropriate carrier. Gibbon knew the economics weren't where they needed to be, but he thought scale would improve them and great service would lead to a good business. "We just couldn't get enough. We couldn't make it profitable," Gibbon told Insider this month. Despite Shyp's cautionary tale, startups are still keen to find ways to cash in on this potentially $500 billion problem . And some say things have changed enough to make returns pickup make sense. Returns need fixing
"The returns model is overdue for an update," said Krish Iyer, the vice president of strategic partnerships at Auctane, which owns ShipStation and Stamps.com. Iyer has been on the technology side of e-commerce for more than a decade. "Despite the option to ship returns, there is demand from consumers to make the process more convenient," Iyer said via email. And there is a small but steady stream of entrepreneurs looking to do that. Alongside Narvar and DoorDash, Returnmates has raised $5 million for its returns-pickup service, which is building up steam in Texas. The last-mile-delivery startup OneRail and Veho are also offering the service. Re-turnz and ReturnQueen are working on making pickups work, too. Viraj Bindra, the consumer verticals group product manager lead at DoorDash, said the "very small beta experiment" was intended to allow the company to learn about this pain point for consumers. "It's exciting to see the early interest from consumers in this product test," he said in an email. For consumers, it's about convenience. For retailers, pickup could mean the ability to resell returned goods at higher prices while they're still in season and on trend. Amit Sharma, Narvar's CEO, told Insider that getting returns back to retailers in a timely manner was particularly important today. "When done right, consumers are returning goods 25% faster, and that is really important," Sharma said. "Because every single time a pair of shoes sits in my closet, this is a missed opportunity cost — especially in this supply-constrained environment. "
Most of the new returns-pickup services aim to be integrated into the email chain that happens when a customer starts a return so that the pickup is presented as an option the customer can choose immediately. Every option — with the exception of DoorDash, which is free — charges either a fee of less than $10 per pickup or a monthly subscription fee. Doubters and believers
There are two major reasons returns pickup is expensive. First, it's less efficient than deliveries in most cases — especially if added services, such as a printed label and packaging, are included. "Pickup doesn't have enough repeatable patterns," said Brenda Stoner, who recently stepped down from the CEO role at the big and bulky delivery startup Pickup to pursue more startup projects in the logistics space. The second reason is that so far, neither consumers nor retailers have been willing to pay enough to cover the cost of the pickup service, let alone enough to create a profit. "We went to all the major retailers. Nobody would pay," Gibbon said. Rent the Runway was the only company Shyp managed a productive partnership with. Returnmates is working with Rent the Runway now, and the startup is coordinating with retailers to optimize the drop-off points for returns and give them more value. "For a pickup-service model to work, it might require both the retailer and the consumer to pay for the pickup premium here," Iyer said. Gibbon guessed that in order for Shyp to break even on pickups, it would have needed to charge $15 — triple the $5 it charged. That math could change if pickups are logically mixed in with existing deliveries, such as in the case of DoorDash. Eric Wimer, Returnmates' CEO, said the company saw enough demand to build routes so that drivers used their time more efficiently. Sharma said Narvar found that so far consumers were willing to pay $5 to $7 for a pickup, but since the service was being used mainly as a way to drum up customers for Narvar's main software business, rather than as a moneymaker, it might not need to ask for more. OneRail, a last-mile-delivery platform that allows retailers to use multiple carriers, treats returns pickup just like deliveries. CEO Bill Catania said all his customers who used the platform for returns paid for the pickup — evidence of some evolution. Catania also said the number of gig drivers on the road created capacity for this kind of service that might not have been available in the past. "The increase in players, and specifically ride-share companies participating in this returns-pickup market, is directly correlated to the need for capacity and people who can respond instantly," Catania said. Lyft is completing some returns pickups for OneRail, a spokesperson said. There are signs that 2022 may be a more hospitable environment for returns-pickup players. There's increased industry awareness and understanding of the lost value in returns and the importance of getting goods back faster, as well as increased flexible driver capacity in the market. But at the same time, the cost to physically move goods around has only gone up in price. Gibbon has a new startup, a direct-to-consumer fulfillment business called Airhouse, that recently raised an $11 million Series A. It's been four years since Shyp shut down, and in the fast-evolving e-commerce business, that's a long time. But Gibbon still didn't believe it would be any different today. "I think that nothing has actually changed at all," he said. "I've tried to help out other companies that are doing similar returns-pickup services, and frankly, the math just doesn't work out." In other words, the success of this new crop of startups may rest on who's willing to pay — and how much. Sign up for notifications from Insider! Stay up to date with what you want to know. Subscribe to push notifications