Alibris Returns Returns To Their Sellers (And Opens Up Direct Contact)
We asked whether the switch to seller-handled returns was motivated by costs. Mr. Kohn noted that there may be some cost savings for Alibris, but there were two other primary motivations. As he explained, "First, sellers have requested this for many years. Second, international expansion would be very difficult if we continued to handle returns. Should we launch a German platform next year, we'd be hard pressed to accept returns from German customers." He then adds, "We also believe sellers will provide better informed and more personal responses to Alibris customers, resulting in increased customer satisfaction and repeat sales." In terms of savings, he notes, "Clearly, there may be some cost savings to Alibris in reducing the number of returns handled - but we're still handling all Via Alibris returns and many partner returns as well. The partner returns make up 50% of the total return volume." As to whether Alibris' recent purchase by Oak Hill Capital Partners played any role in this change, Kohn stated that it did not.
One factor that has made the switch to seller-managed returns more controversial is the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Alibris generates more returns than most listing sites. Perhaps Alibris' generous return policy has led to greater returns, or at least, that impression. Says Kohn, "Appearances can be deceiving. The returns seen on the Alibris' Seller Dashboard include returns from partners which sellers aren't responsible for handling. Alibris will continue to absorb Via Alibris returns and partner returns that make up 50% of the total return volume. In addition, the Alibris policy no longer requires that sellers accept discretionary returns. So, customers can't return a book because they didn't like the ending."
The other side of this change is increased seller interaction with customers. Mr. Kohn pointed out that customers have always had the option of contacting sellers in advance of a purchase, and about 2,000 people per week use this function. However, Alibris will probably move the contact information to the search-by-seller page where it is likely to get more use. Sellers will also now have the option of contacting buyers after the purchase but prior to the order being shipped.
Of course, this brings us to the issue which has led other sites to attempt to reduce buyer-seller contact: the possibility of transactions taking place outside of the website. Naturally, this would deprive the site of the commission it rightfully earned by bringing buyer and seller together. Mr. Kohn addressed this issue by saying, "We acknowledge that this is a possibility, and likely occurs to some degree today. It's our firm belief that we provide sellers with access to a dynamic customer base and the best distribution channels, all of which encourage repeat purchases. At present we're confident that our network of sellers represents the best and most professional from around the world. I hope they'll respect the service we provide and won't go around our system. In addition, there are many benefits to using Alibris for the transaction. Fraud is on the rise, and we can't provide any protection on orders that occur outside of our system. Nor can we intervene in any customer/seller disputes surrounding non-delivery or other issues. Unfortunately, we've had a few sellers who were bilked by fraudsters after being persuaded to transact outside of Alibris."