Drivers of reverse supply chain management (why)

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This chapter gives an insight into the chosen research philosophy and research approaches applied in this thesis. Furthermore, the research strategies, data collection methods, and time horizons are described. The layout of this thesis methodology is based on the ‘research onion’ concept of Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill (2007) (see Appendix 5 Research onion). The concept has been applied as it explains the choice of data collection techniques and analysis procedures before coming to the central point – method evaluation, thus important layers of the onion need to be peeled away (Saunders et al., 2007).

Research philosophy

Saunders et al. (2007) distinguish between three major ways of thinking about research philosophy: epistemology, ontology, and axiology. In this thesis the epistemology view is the most appropriate philosophy. It constitutes acceptable knowledge in the field of study (Saunders et al., 2007). There are three streams within epistemology: positivism, realism, and interpretivism (Saunders et al., 2007). In this thesis interpretivism is applied, Livesey (2006) states in support of interpretivism that society doesn’t exist in an objective, observable, form; but instead, it is experienced by subjective behaviour. Therefore to understand and explore reality it is essential to investigate subjective reasons on which people’s actions are based (Saunders et al., 2007).
Due to the complexity of the business environment and the dynamics of each company’s development, the internal and external processes carried out vary and are unique. Therefore, from the interpretivism perspective the generalisation approach is less likely to be used, instead qualitative and less-structured research approaches are favoured (Saunders et. al., 2007). In this thesis research the aim is to investigate the reverse supply chain processes performed by four electronics retailers in Sweden of different sizes. Thus, it is necessary to understand the objectives and the actions of each company, to point out, why a certain product recovery option is being used. As a result, the interpretivism view is the most appropriate for this research.

Research approaches

Deductive and inductive approach Ghauri and Gronhaug (2005) state that there are two ways of establishing what is true or false and to draw conclusions: induction and deduction. In the deductive approach researchers develop a theory or a hypothesis and design a research strategy to test the hypothesis. On the other hand, the inductive approach allows researchers to draw general conclusions from empirical observations by collecting data; this type of research is often associated with a qualitative type of research (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005). This thesis is based on the inductive approach as there is a lack of research and empirical data in the field of reverse supply chain management. Furthermore, in-depth analysis surrounding the issue of choosing the appropriate recovery options for returned products is essential.

Exploratory, explanatory and descriptive approach

Depending on the purpose of study, research can be classified as: exploratory, explanatory, and descriptive. Exploratory studies help researchers to gain more knowledge in new, unknown, or unexplored areas- to find out ‘what is happening; to seek new insights; to ask questions and to assess phenomena in a new light’ (Robson, 2002, p. 59). Explanatory studies aim to study a situation or a problem in order to explain the relationship between variables (Saunders et al., 2007). The purpose of descriptive studies is to ‘portray an accurate profile of persons, events, or situations.’ (Robson, 2002, p. 59) Key characteristics of descriptive studies are structure, precise rules and procedure (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005).
In this research the combination of both exploratory and descriptive approaches are used. Based on the purpose of this thesis the exploratory approach is suitable in order to gain more knowledge in the field of reverse supply chain management. The descriptive approach is used to ‘portray’ product return process in electronics retailing.

Research strategy

Saunders et al. (2007) point out that the choice of research strategies (experiment, survey, case study, action research, grounded theory, ethnography, archival research) is based upon answering the research questions and meeting objectives. For the basis of conducting empirical research, a case study as a strategy is chosen. The case study strategy allows the generating of answers for the research questions for this thesis.
A number of electronics retailers (seven) that offer white and brown goods and operate in Sweden have been contacted (phone communication and e-mails) and four out of them agreed to participate in the empirical study. The criterion for selection has been to investigate electronics retailers of different sizes to examine whether they have similar approaches in handling product returns and choosing recovery options. The information regarding the electronics retailing companies has been found through the Swedish website (

Research method

Saunders et al. (2007) distinguish two methods quantitative and qualitative, to obtain data in order to solve/ answer a particular research problem or questions. The quantitative method is mainly used when collecting statistical data; in contrast the qualitative method involves non-numerical data collection (Saunders et al., 2007).
The qualitative method is used for this thesis in order to gain more knowledge about the phenomena of product returns, by collecting the reflections on this issue from interviewed participants (representatives of the selected electronics retailing companies). ‘For inductive and exploratory research, qualitative methods are most useful, as they can lead to hypothesis building and explanations.’ (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005, p. 111) Furthermore, the mono method is chosen as a single qualitative data collection technique in the form of in-depth interviews (Saunders et al., 2007).

Time horizons

Saunders et al. (2007) refer to a cross-sectional study as the ‘snapshot’ time horizon and a longitudinal study as the ‘diary’ time perspective. Longitudinal research allows studying the change or development of a phenomena or situation over time, however this type of research is very time consuming (Saunders et al, 2007). This thesis is conducted as a cross-sectional study, due to time constraints given to answer the research questions and fulfil the objectives. A cross-sectional study examines a particular phenomenon at a particular time, in this thesis it is not necessary to investigate returned product handling at more than one point in time.

Data collection

Data collection is an essential part of research; however sources differ with the collecting process. There are several ways and manners of obtaining, structuring, and analysing data to facilitate the research process. Depending on the origin of the source, collected data is classified as secondary or primary data. Ghauri and Gronhaug (2005) and Saunders et al. (2007) identify that secondary data are information previously collected by others for some other purpose, and primary data are original or new information collected specifically for the research at hand.

Secondary data

In this thesis the following sources of secondary data have been used in the form of:

  • Documentary sources: articles from academic journals, publications, other thesis and dissertations, the Internet;
  • Multiple sources: books, industry specific reports, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket) reports, EU directives.

 Primary data

In this thesis interviews are applicable as a source of collecting primary data. Saunders et al. (2007) categorize three types of interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured or in-depth interviews. For this thesis, due to the uniqueness of each company, semi-structured interviews are used. The questions are related to particular interviews, given a specific organizational context that is encountered in relation to the research topic (Saunders et al., 2007). The order of the questions may vary depending on the flow of the conversation, and additional questions have been asked to explore the research topic or objectives given the nature of the company (Saunders et al., 2007). Additionally to electronics retailers for further in-depth information regarding the recovery options and its processes, interviews with the recycling centre and workshop have been conducted. Furthermore, to get an insight into Swedish legislation concerning product returns in electronics retailing an interview with Svensk Handel representative was also conducted. Most interviews have been held face-to-face and telephone interviews have been used as well (see Appendix 7 Interview participants).


The research approaches and design chosen for this thesis to which the collection primary and secondary data is gathered can have an effect on the reliability of the findings. According to Saunders et al. (2007) ‘reliability refers to the extent which your data collection techniques or analysis procedures will yield consistent findings’. Providing reliable sources of information to conduct and carry out research is critical to reduce the possibility producing inconsistent and non-credible findings.
The quality of information obtained during the collection of primary and secondary data will determine the success of how the analysis and interpretations of the findings can prove useful for academia and practitioners alike as well as provide a base for further research in this topic.


The validity of a research is concerned with whether the findings validate what was being said throughout this thesis; it is to see whether the relationship between two variables is a causal relationship (Saunders et al., 2007). For instance, the research conducted for this thesis concerns how product returns are handled and the role retailers play in the electronics industry specifically in Sweden. The research conducted will validate whether or not the retailers role has a contributory factor in how products are being processed in order to close the loop.
The timing of the research can have an influence on the results which may minimise the validity of the findings, also to see whether the findings can be adaptable or equally applicable to other research settings or similar organisations within a particular industry or of comparison (Saunders et al., 2007). The authors conducted semi-structured interviews so it can be flexible and interactive to validate the interviewees of their understandings and opinions and see if it mirrored each other which also increase the reliability of the findings since they are credible sources.

Method evaluation

To achieve the purpose of this thesis the authors have chooses the qualitative research approach and apply the multiple-case study research strategy to collect data through semi-structured interviews.
However, there are weaknesses attributed to the chosen methods conducting the empirical research.
Furthermore, a limited number of electronics retailers (participants) operating in Sweden has been examined in this thesis due to the fact that some companies when contacted didn’t agree to take part in this research. This hinders the purpose of reaching an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon, hence making the findings less valuable for the academia and the practitioners but making a case for future research. The data collected through the semi-structured interviews is based on the information from the retailers’ perspective, which is due to the time constraints of the research and does not give a whole picture of the phenomenon. The participating companies’ and their interviewed employees’ identities are kept anonymous upon request.

1 Introduction
1.1 Background to the topic
1.2 Problem discussion
1.3 Purpose
1.4 Research question
1.5 Delimitations
1.6 Outline
2 Literature review 
2.1 Reverse supply chain
2.2 Reverse supply chain processes
2.3 Drivers of reverse supply chain management (why)
2.4 Types of returns (what and why)
2.5 Processes and recovery options (how)
2.6 Responsibilities and roles of actors (who)
3 Methodology 
3.1 Research philosophy
3.2 Research approaches
3.3 Research strategy
3.4 Research method
3.5 Time horizons
3.6 Data collection
3.7 Reliability
3.8 Validity
3.9 Method evaluation
4 Empirical study 
4.1 Company A
4.2 Company B
4.3 Company C
4.4 Company D
4.5 Workshop (repair centre)
4.6 Recycling centre
4.7 Summary of the empirical study
5 Analysis
5.1 RQ1: How are product returns handled in electronics retailing in Sweden
5.2 RQ2: Who are the actors involved and their responsibilities in handling returned products.
5.3 RQ3: What role do retailers of electronics play in closing the loop
5.4 RQ4: Which recovery options are being used and what influences the choice
6 Conclusions
7 Discussion and future research 
Closing the Loop: Reverse supply chain management and product return processes in electronics retailing

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