Main Content

Sending the shoes back? How about this lovely gift card? Cross-selling can help retailers avoid lost revenue from returns

July 20, 2023

Toronto - It’s become so darn easy to order stuff thanks to the miracles of online shopping. But it’s not so simple on the retailer end, especially when more than 16 per cent of those sales are later sent back. In the U.S., that adds up to a staggering $816 billion in lost revenue.

Cross-selling can help, say a pair of researchers. Their experiments show that once we’ve chosen to buy something, we tend to consider that money as already spent or gone, also called “loss booking.” If we decide we want to return the item, retailers can take advantage of that tendency by giving customers enticing options to spend their refund on something else, instead of getting their money back.

In a nutshell, “it hurts less to spend money refunded from a product return than other money, because you feel like you’ve already lost it,” says researcher Chang-Yuan Lee, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Prof. Lee and his colleague Carey K. Morewedge from Boston University showed this over and over again in a series of experiments.  Participants were more likely to buy an item when they were paying for it through refund money compared to funds they hadn’t already spent. This occurred even in cases of unexpected money – it was still easier to apply a refund to another item than to spend windfall funds on it, such as imagined lottery winnings or tax refunds. And study participants were willing to accept an item outside their original product category – a $100 gift card for a sports shoe company after the return of a $90 grocery item.

There’s a catch though. The shopper has to psychologically mark the initial spend as lost, something that does not happen when they expect to ask for a refund at the time of purchase. Study participants who bought two pairs of shoes in different sizes, expecting to return the poorer-fitting pair, were not so likely to turn around and immediately apply the refund to something else offered.

Retailers are already on to cross-selling’s value. The researchers cite the online exchanges-first platform Loop Returns which claims to have retained nearly 29 per cent of potentially lost sales revenue for online merchants by offering consumers alternative product options before initiating a refund.

While consumers could be discouraged from making returns by being charged extra fees, that leaves a bad taste in their mouth and previous research has shown they may take their business elsewhere.

“Our proposed cross-selling strategy offers a solution for retailers to minimize revenue loss without imposing significant costs on both the retailers and consumers,” says Prof. Lee.

The study appears in the July issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Bringing together high-impact faculty research and thought leadership on one searchable platform, the new Rotman Insights Hub offers articles, podcasts, opinions, books and videos representing the latest in management thinking and providing insights into the key issues facing business and society. Visit

The Rotman School of Management is part of the University of Toronto, a global centre of research and teaching excellence at the heart of Canada’s commercial capital. Rotman is a catalyst for transformative learning, insights and public engagement, bringing together diverse views and initiatives around a defining purpose: to create value for business and society. For more information, visit


For more information:

Ken McGuffin
Manager, Media Relations
Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto