It's Not Only What They Buy, It's also What They Keep: Linking Marketing Instruments to Product Returns

Siham El Kihal*, Edlira Shehu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Online retailers implement various marketing instruments to boost their sales. These marketing instruments can not only impact sales, but also product returns. However, when assessing the performance of marketing instruments, retailers often ignore potential return effects. Theoretically, marketing instruments could increase or decrease returns, depending on how they affect expected and experienced costs and benefits related to a product. In this paper, we empirically examine whether, and how a comprehensive set of marketing instruments (newsletters, catalogs, coupons, free shipping, paid search, affiliate advertising and image advertising) affects product returns. We use data from two major online retailers and show that return effects vary largely across marketing instruments. Surprisingly, none of the instruments reduces product returns. Newsletters, paid search, catalogs and free shipping increase returns substantially by up to 18%. For free shipping and catalogs, the return effects emerge prevalently for fashion categories, whereas online advertising and newsletters increase returns of both fashion and non-fashion products. These findings enhance our understanding of how firm-initiated marketing instruments affect returns and provide guidance for online retailers in multimedia environments.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Retailing
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)558-571
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022

Bibliographical note

Published online: 10 February 2022.


  • Product returns
  • Return management
  • Marketing instruments
  • Online retailing

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