The Rise of Chargebacks: A Worrying Consumer Trend for UK Retailers

Chargebacks, the credit card dispute function that is meant to offer consumers a layer of protection when purchasing products, are quickly turning from rare squabbles into profit-eating parasites for many retailers across the UK. New data from the IMRG x Just Online retail and customer chargebacks study reveals these transaction reversals have surged 29 percent since 2019. 

More worryingly, 44 percent of British shoppers admitted to filing at least one chargeback within the past year. Yet 60 percent have no idea merchants shoulder the cost rather than banks or credit card companies.

For merchants, the impact isn’t just the lost income. Beyond material losses, retailers also face chargeback processing costs. Once a chargeback is raised, a retailer would have to resell that same product up to eight times to recoup the cost of that chargeback. Given the high volume of chargebacks reported, you can already see how these extortionate fees can rapidly eat into margins

With rising living costs driving more Brits toward chargeback claims for financial relief, these alarming numbers could be just the beginning. Ethical merchants now risk sinking slowly into the quicksand unless solutions are found quickly.


Understanding Chargebacks

So, what are chargebacks anyway? In short, a chargeback is a reversal of a credit or debit card transaction that returns funds to the cardholder. Chargebacks were originally created to serve as a consumer protection method for card users to dispute certain charges from their bank or credit provider.

In the UK, chargeback rules are dictated by card networks like Visa and Mastercard. They provide cardholders a means of essentially “undoing” a transaction they perceive as unsatisfactory for any reason. After filing a claim, the card network pulls the charge amount back from the retailer’s merchant account.

The retailer then has some time to choose to either accept the chargeback or contest it with evidence to try recovering the funds. For the consumer, it provides a form of transaction insurance to minimize financial disruption. For the merchant, it creates costs and operational headaches, especially if managing high volumes of chargebacks.


Why Consumers File Chargebacks (Legitimately)

Chargebacks were established to empower shoppers who experience genuine post-purchase problems. When used responsibly, they remain useful tools for reversing:

  • Unauthorized credit card charges
  • Undelivered goods after payment
  • Severely misrepresented or flawed items
  • Mistakes rectifying canceled subscriptions

Essentially if a retailer egregiously fails to uphold their billing or fulfilment duties, chargebacks offer an accessible recourse for consumers to dispute charges and halt financial bleeding. Of course, the system relies heavily on user integrity and honesty when filing claims – and that leaves the system open to abuse. 

In reality, many customers reach for chargebacks to alleviate retail frustrations across the spectrum – from minor inconveniences to major fraud. Below are top scenarios that see consumers crying chargeback:

  • Non-delivery after 2-5 days
  • Items slightly damaged or different from the website description
  • Change of mind/fit/style opinions
  • Store policy disagreements
  • General financial motivations

This range demonstrates why proper chargeback processes grow complex very quickly. Determining claim legitimacy puts immense pressure on banks and card companies assessing volumes of cases – and it is the merchant that usually ends up with the short end of the stick.


What Do Friendly Fraudsters Stand To Gain?

So why would otherwise upstanding customers risk committing “friendly fraud” via illegitimate chargebacks? Well, the incentives range from recouping small annoyances to satisfying larger financial motivations.

On minor ends of the spectrum, some friendly fraudsters use chargebacks simply to reverse bothersome impulse purchase regrets or get refunds on items that don’t perfectly fit. The mindset claims “the company won’t miss the money.”

More extreme friendly fraud can feel almost victimless from the claimant’s perspective – especially when sticking it to faceless corporations. Other cases involve blatant greed, like charging back correctly delivered £200 trainers just to secure free shoes.

Between hassle-free money returns and lack of repercussions, the sad incentives push ethical boundaries for many shoppers. And friendly fraud breeds higher retailer costs which translate to inflated prices that penalise honest shoppers.


How Merchants Can Protect Themselves

As chargebacks rise, what options do UK retailers have to safeguard margins and reputation?

  • Strengthen return/refund policies – Offer hassle-free returns up to 60 days. This provides an alternate recourse over chargebacks for dissatisfied yet honest customers. Just ensure policies don’t enable outright abuse.

  • Expand customer communication – Proactively email customers shipment status updates and set proper expectations around handling times, product attributes, quality promises, etc.

  • Introduce customer service friction – For high-risk categories like luxury apparel with frequent “change of mind” disputes, consider requiring pre-authorizations on costly purchases. This adds a speed bump before expensive chargebacks get triggered.

  • Watch for friendly fraud red flags – Profile high-frequency filers and look for suspicious patterns like multiple chargebacks from the same card/addresses. Too many disputes from a single source likely indicate abuse rather than a string of misfortunes.

In Closing

In wrapping things up, it’s easy to see that the current trend of unwarranted chargebacks can’t last forever. When consumers dispute charges without cause, those costs eventually come out of someone else’s pocket down the line. Retailers work on thin margins as it is. At the same time, companies need to show customers they can be trusted – while also protecting their bottom line from fraudulent abuses of the system.

From an education and public awareness standpoint, if consumers realize disputing a legit purchase means losses out of someone else’s wages or livelihood, maybe they’ll hesitate before claiming fraud just because they changed their mind. Meanwhile, merchants know keeping good records and customer service can earn them the benefit of the doubt when issues do arise.

With cooperation from all sides, incentives could be realigned in a way that encourages responsibility without punishing people for honest mistakes.