Ex-Shopify GM leads ReturnBear into more Cadillac Fairview malls with national expansion

ReturnBear is bullish on consolidating returns processing for e-commerce retailers.

The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP) and Cadillac Fairview (CF) saw a need to change how e-commerce product returns are handled, and working with OTPP’s in-house venture builder, Koru, created ReturnBear.

Now led by former Shopify GM Sylvia Ng, ReturnBear hopes to smooth out a major pain point of e-commerce shopping, and is working on expanding its service nationally.

“Even when we only had two locations in the GTA opened, almost 40 percent of the consumers within the GTA would drop off their items over mailing it in.” -Sylvia Ng

ReturnBear is one of the first Canadian startups that aims to offer an end-to-end solution handling product returns on behalf of retailers. The company looks to collate returns from multiple retailers in one place through package-free drop-off locations. Instead of retailers and shoppers paying for and sending e-commerce returns through the mail, the idea is for shoppers to drop off undesired products at ReturnBear stations located in CF malls. From there, ReturnBear processes and batches up returned products to send back to each retailer from a single hub location (quality assurance checks are also made).

ReturnBear aims to reorient how customers and merchants perceive the process of returning e-commerce items, and divert their attention from the post office to the mall.

The core of the company’s expansion, announced in March, consists of adding more drop-off locations in CF malls across the country. Ng said that ReturnBear plans for every province to have drop-off locations, and additional hub locations in eastern and western Canada, by the end of the year.

ReturnBear launched in October 2021 with one hub location and two pilot drop-off locations at CF malls in the Greater Toronto Area. So far it has expanded to a total of 10 locations across Québec, Alberta, British Columbia, and Manitoba.

ReturnBear recently launched an update to its merchant app for brands to track analytics, manage return operations, and offer self-serve options. ReturnBear currently works with brands such as Numi, Franc, California Cowboy, and Mint Green Group, the Canadian distributor for sport brands such as K-Swiss, Cleveland Golf, and Dunlop.

ReturnBear is also designed to easily integrate for retailers that use Magento and Ng’s alum platform, Shopify. Ng said there are further plans for a ReturnBear app to be released on the Shopify app store within the next quarter to reach more direct-to-consumer brands.

Ng said her time at Shopify taught her that retailers need to be “hyper-focused” with their time to grow, so if they have the opportunity to let someone else manage a part of the business, retailers should take that opportunity.

“We see the returns space growing, and vendors like ReturnBear can take on whole parts of the journey on behalf of retailers,” Ng said. “I feel like that’s what I’m taking with me [from Shopify] to ReturnBear: the understanding that retailers shouldn’t be handling returns themselves.”

While ReturnBear currently supports a small number of retailers and has few drop-off locations at the moment, Ng said the concept saw customers choose ReturnBear over the post office in its pilot phase.

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“Even when we only had two locations in the GTA opened, almost 40 percent of the consumers within the GTA would drop off their items over mailing it in,” Ng said. “We are expecting this number to go up to 50 to 60 percent as we start expanding to more locations, and we are actually seeing that now with the locations we recently added.”

CF’s senior vice president of innovation, Laura Manes, calledReturnBear a good option for direct-to-consumer brands with little to no physical footprint. She also envisioned a future where ReturnBear can provide supplementary support for seasonal returns, taking some of the burden off of physical retailers in busy returns periods.

“We do believe there is a big opportunity to leverage our physical shopping environments, like our malls, to be a hub for returns,” Manes said. “We know that shopping online has created a lot of pain points for shoppers, and it’s our business to bring together retailers and shoppers in one environment.”

Manes said that CF had researched US-based return services, but Canada’s omission from their services indicated a lack of attention to the cross border issues Canadian retailers live with.

“So much of our e-commerce is done with companies south of the border, so the fact that the solution was being built natively in Canada, to serve the unique needs of Canadians, really resonated with us,” Manes said.

Ng agreed that having been founded in Canada, ReturnBear is in a better position to solve the additional return logistics that come with cross border returns. She said ReturnBear works to improve on the experience so packages can get across the border smoothly and quickly.

While Ng said building those logistical channels for ReturnBear was “fun,” it was reducing the amount of products ending up in landfills that drew her to the position. She explained that when retailers and customers can’t take returns back in an efficient manner, products end up in landfills. ReturnBear’s processing attempts to avoid this by donating or recycling items that are in too bad of a condition for retailers to take back.

“I would love to be able to publish a report [in five years] saying how many items we have deferred from the landfill because of ReturnBear,” Ng said. “That should be in the millions at that point.”

Featured Image courtesy Sylvia Ng.

Alex Riehl

Alex Riehl

Alex Riehl is a staff writer and newsletter curator at BetaKit with a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University. He's interested in tech, gaming, and sports. You can find out more about him at alexriehl.com or @RiehlAlex99 on Twitter.

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