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The University of Southampton
Southampton Business School

Southampton's Product Returns Research Group wins ESRC Covid-19 Grant

Published: 25 November 2020
A tiny trolley with little boxes

Dr Regina Frei, Associate Professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management at Southampton Business School (SBS), has been awarded a research grant under the UKRI’s call to get funding for ideas that address Covid-19. The project will be a collaboration between the Business School, the School for Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) - team members include Dr Gary Wills and Dr Enrico Gerding from ECS as well as Dr Steffen Bayer and Dr PK Senyo from SBS - and the Efficient Consumer Response (ECR) Community, an association of retailers and manufacturers (visit The ECR Community Shrink & OSA Group website).

Dr Frei, who leads the Product Returns Research Group, stated: “Retailers are struggling. Problems that are costly in normal periods, such as Wardrobing, which is ordering fashion items for specific opportunities and returning them afterwards, fraudulent refunds, and serial returners have become worse in this pandemic period. With recent research showing that many customers will retain their new online shopping habits, the problems will stay, too. Product returns consume a large proportion of resources, just when retailers are recovering from a period of shop closures, operating under new constraints, like fitting rooms closed or returned products needing quarantine and with the threat of local lockdowns. Under these uncertain conditions, it is even more important to gain a better understanding of what factors influence product returns rates and being able to tell how certain decisions, for instance extending or shortening the returns period, will change the returns rates.” 

The research project aims at gaining a deeper understanding of consumer behaviour in terms of product returns and fraud in a Covid-19 world. The researchers will model these behaviours and the factors that influence them to create a forecasting system. Furthermore, they will define strategies for retailers to influence product returns and fraud rates whilst aiming for increased sustainability. 

The approach to modelling and forecasting will draw on insights from retail experts and will use explainable artificial intelligence (AI) and system dynamics modelling to create a tool that can predict how product returns and related fraud rates will develop under different scenarios.  

Packers in warehouse

The researchers will then define a set of actions retailers can take to mitigate them, together with an assessment of their environmental and economic effects. For instance, disallowing guest check-outs is likely to result in a lower returns rate. We will also identify indicators of likely higher returns, helping retailers develop strategies to apply when certain events occur, such as a local lockdown. This will help retailers optimise their decision-making when it comes to influencing returns and fraud. The ultimate goals are to help retailers operate efficiently and thrive in this challenging time, whilst increasing sustainability. 

The Product Returns Research Group is recruiting a Research Associate to work on this project for 16 months, starting in January 2021. Find out more by visiting the University job website.

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