For consumers, navigating the often unwieldy process of returning online purchases can be an arduous task.

In fact, only 62 percent of consumers said they were satisfied with the online returns process, according to a recent UPS "Pulse of the Online Shopper" study, released by UPS and comScore Inc.

"Firms have concentrated on getting the merchandise to the customers," explains Barry Berman, a retail expert and marketing professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "Getting it back from the customer has gotten much less attention on their part."

Three main concerns

Among the top issues reported by survey respondents:

57 percent said they had to pay for return shipping

34 percent had to pay a restocking fee

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33 percent said it took too long to get a refund or credit

It's in the e-tailer's best interest to make the returns process easier, considering 58 percent of consumers surveyed said they want a hassle-free, no-questions-asked policy.

Farmingdale-based Supply House.com, which sells plumbing, heating and HVAC supplies online, tries to oblige.

"We try to make it easy and painless for the customer," says Emily Kirwan, a customer service and returns specialist with SupplyHouse.com.

The company's returns policy is accessible through its home page and is very detailed with multiple bullet points.

"We try to be as transparent as possible," notes Fernando Cunha, chief operating officer. There are guidelines, but the policy "is not etched in stone, and we can use judgment to go above and beyond to help customers," he says.

Customers can call in or set up a return via an online form, explains Kirwan, noting about 60 percent call in and about 40 percent use the online form.

The firm doesn't charge a restocking fee if the purchase is returned within the first 30 days, and for professional contractors in its Trade Master Program, return shipping is free for 365 days, Cunha says.

Free returns popular

In a survey last year by Mountain View, California-based Endicia, a provider of online shipping technologies and services, 51 percent of those polled said they wanted free return shipping, while 66 percent said so in the UPS/comScore study.

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But don't just give away free shipping, because it can eat into your profits, Berman says. Offer it in cases of mis-shipped, defective or late-arriving goods, he notes. You might even offer an incentive in those cases, such as 10 percent off your next order, Berman says.

"The ultimate goal is customer satisfaction," he notes.

Keep it simple

In general, keep your policy simple, short and easy to find, advises Jim Brill, reverse logistics manager at UPS, which recently released a report, "Rethinking Online Returns." And avoid legalese. "Make it customer friendly," he suggests.

If you can, include a return label in the box or make it available from your website, Brill notes. According to the UPS/comScore study, 47 percent of consumers want an easy-to-print return label.

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Endicia has a program called Pay-on-Use Returns in which companies can issue a return label with each outbound order or via email to a customer but are only charged for that label if and when it's used and processed through the postal system, explains Amine Khechfe, Endicia's general manager and co-founder.

In the box, or nearby store

"Most people like to have a return label in the box," he notes.

They also like to be able to return the product to a physical store, notes Berman, adding that how you handle returns can differentiate you from competitors.

Cunha agrees.

"It's an opportunity to wow the customer and really separate yourself from other companies," he says.