Like Shyp for shipments, Cambridge startup Tern takes on returns

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Online shopping has made revamping your wardrobe for the winter a breeze. But what happens when the leather long boots you ordered on a whim don’t fit?

A new service called Tern launched this month will allow you to reverse an unwanted order by sending someone to the store with the goods on your behalf.

“We really thought that returns should be as easy as online shopping,” said Biswaroop Mukherjee, a physics graduate student at MIT who built the service in his spare time at digs in Harvard Square.

Mukherjee became convinced of the market for such an app after conducting an informal survey of about 50 people while waiting for the July 4 fireworks to start on Memorial Drive.

“A majority said they would actually pay for it,” Mukherjee said, acknowledging that the idea was borne from equal parts inspiration and boredom. He spent August and September building the app, which launched in October, and switched to a master’s track while en route to a PhD to give him more time to build his business. The app launched  in October this year.

Tern can be downloaded for free as an app on an Android or iPhone device. You can schedule a pickup, at which time one of the two contractors who bike around Boston for Tern will arrive at your house and collect your item and its receipt. The service will cost $5 per return, plus five percent of the item’s value.

Tern currently makes returns to more than 30 local stores including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstorm, REI, and Patagonia. Items purchased online or in stores can be returned to these local stores – Tern does not mail back orders yet. If you paid in cash, you get a gift card mailed back to you for the same amount. If you paid with a credit card, the store refunds it automatically. If the store doesn’t accept it because of damage or any other reason, Tern will bring back the item.

Tern isn’t the only service chasing the returns-seeking crowd.

Uber, which has been developing a delivery service called “Uber Rush,” teased a returns service in New York City for online shopping orders powered by its “Uber Rush” service at $4 per pickup.

Then there’s Shyp, which is based in San Francisco, and launched in March last year with the goal of saving customers the hassle of standing in line at the post office or the neighborhood Fedex facility – online purchases on the way back included.

But Shyp has yet to start offering pickups in Boston, though its service is live in New York City, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

And Mukherjee, with a live Android and iOS app, and bikers operating through Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Allston, and Brighton, hopes to gain valuable ground in the meanwhile.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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