American is a land of many happy returns

I hate shopping. Whenever I go to a store, I tend to be overwhelmed by the variety before me and so my strategy, when I cannot avoid shopping, is to decide in advance exactly what I want and go in and buy it and get out of the store in the shortest possible time. I particularly hate shopping for clothes so I tend to wear the same clothes over and over until they start to fall apart and then I try to buy exactly the same thing (brand name, size, color, style, etc.) to replace the item. This is not easy because it seems like most people don’t want to wear the same clothes repeatedly and so manufacturers keep changing things. So when I find an item I like, I sometimes buy more than one item just to spare myself a later shopping trip.

The advent of online shopping has been a boon for people like me because it spares me having to search through racks of items looking for just what I want. But even here there are problems. Recently I needed to buy a pair of shoes because the shoes I wore were developing holes in the bottom through which water would seep if the ground was wet. I currently have a pair that leaks that I wear only on dry days. (Yes, I wear the same pair of shoes over and over, with a spare pair handy if the occasion requires me to wear something better than my shabby pair.) I found the identical pair online at the Target department store in the same size and color and so ordered it. But when it arrived, I found to my consternation that it was too large. So I had to take it to the store to exchange it, that required looking through the racks to find a size that fit me, which was a full size smaller than my previous pair. So either my feet have got smaller (unlikely) or the manufacturer’s sizes have changed.

But in reading a recent article by David Owen, I learned that other shoppers adopt a strategy with clothes that had not even crossed my mind. What they do is order multiple versions of the same item in different sizes, colors, etc. and after trying them on at home, returning all but the ones they want to keep. What enables this strategy to work is that in America, free returns of purchased items, for whatever reason no questions asked, has become standard, so that any retailer who does not offer this feature will lose customers to those who do. “Returns to online retailers now average close to twenty per cent, and returns of apparel are often double that.” As a result, the annual value of returned goods in the US is approaching a staggering one trillion dollars. America seems to be easily the world leader in this regard. Consumers in Japan, for example, seldom return anything.

Some people take advantage of this policy to avoid paying for things that they need only for a short time.

A forest’s worth of artificial Christmas trees goes back every January. Bags of green plastic Easter grass go back every spring. Returns of large-screen TVs surge immediately following the Super Bowl. People who buy portable generators during weather emergencies use them until the emergencies have ended, and then those go back, too. A friend of mine returned so many digital books to Audible that the company now makes her call or e-mail if she wants to return another. People who’ve been invited to fancy parties sometimes buy expensive outfits or accessories, then return them the next day, caviar stains and all—a practice known as “wardrobing.”

So what happens to the items that are returned? If they are returned to a brick-and-mortar store, like I did with my shoes, then they will likely be re-shelved unless it is discovered to have some major flaw. But with items that are bought and returned to online retailers, things get complicated.

It is rarely the case that items end up back on the warehouse shelves from which they began life because restocking returned items is apparently not cost-effective, since “shipping alone often costs more than the items can be resold for.” As a result, some retailers will sometimes refund you your purchase price, especially if they are big items like sofa beds, dining tables, and the like, and ask you to keep the item. The cost of returned items is factored into the selling price of new items, so the rest of us are effectively paying for this practice.

Three years ago, the producers of a Canadian television show called “Marketplace” ordered boots, diapers, a toy train, a coffee maker, a printer, and several other items from Amazon Canada. They concealed a G.P.S. tracking device inside each one, then returned everything and monitored what happened next. Some of the items travelled hundreds of miles in trucks, with intermediate stops at warehouses and liquidation centers, ultimate disposition unknown. A brand-new women’s backpack ended up in a waste-processing center, en route to a landfill. The show included a surreptitiously recorded conversation with an employee of a “product-destruction” facility, who described receiving truckload after truckload of Amazon returns and shredding everything—ostensibly for recycling, although the recoverable content of a chewed-up random selection of consumer goods is not high.

This wastefulness in dealing with returned items has resulted in the creation of a secondary industry.

For a long time, a shocking percentage of online returns were simply junked. The industry term is D.I.F., for “destroy in field.” (The Web site of Patriot Shredding, based in Maryland, says, “Product destruction allows you to protect your organization’s reputation and focus on the future.”) This still happens with cheap clothes, defective gadgets, and luxury items whose brand owners don’t want a presence at Ocean State Job Lot, but, in most product categories, it’s less common than it used to be. Almost all the attendees at the R.L.A. [a trade group Reverse Logistics Association that deals with product returns] conference, of whom there were more than eight hundred, are involved, in one way or another, in seeking profitable, efficient, and (to the extent possible) environmentally conscionable ways of managing the detritus of unfettered consumerism. “Returns are inherently entrepreneurial,” Fara Alexander, the director of brand marketing at goTRG, a returns-management company based in Miami, told me. She and many thousands of people like her are active participants in the rapidly evolving but still only semi-visible economic universe known as the reverse supply chain.

These liquidation companies buy up huge lots of returned items from the retailers and then try to find buyers for them.

For a liquidator, turning a profit depends on having the ability to quickly determine whether an item can be sold again at a reasonable price, and, if so, whether it requires human attention first. Liquidity Services and companies like it use automated and semiautomated routines to sort returned items, repair what can easily be repaired, wipe information from electronic devices, and funnel salable goods to likely customers. “A lot of what we do involves receiving a truckload and then finding another buyer for that truckload, who then will distribute it to mom-and-pop stores and other resellers downstream,” Daunt said. “Or, if they’re not quite big enough to handle that, we may sell it as pallets. We also have direct-to-consumer channels, and people will come to some of our facilities and pick up single items that they’ve bid for online.”

I hate waste and the amount of stuff that is wasted in the US is appalling. The whole consumer market seems set up to actually encourage waste and so I am glad that these secondary outlets have popped up to try and minimize the amount of perfectly good stuff that is thrown away.

But the best solution would be for all of us to simply not buy any stuff that we do not actually need. Of course that would cause problems for the current consumer economy that depends on people spending money but over time, we should settle into a new, low-waste equilibrium.


  1. mnb0 says

    “I hate waste”
    Then you should buy stuff online as little as possible.
    While I don’t like shopping myself and use several of your strategies my loved one is very fond of it. I have learned to enjoy she having a good time.

  2. Jörg says

    Mano: “I hate waste
    And a lot of excess fossil fuel is being burned by transporting the goods/waste.

  3. says

    On the shoes side, it’s worthwhile finding shoes that are well made and spending the extra for them. I have a pair of boots that I use regularly because I walk to most places I need to go and they have lasted me far longer than anything I’d buy at Walmart or such. So much longer that I would have spent more on replacements than I have on just that initial purchase.

    Another advantage of quality, depending on the footwear, is that if you have access to shoe repair where you live then it may be possible to have them fixed instead of buying a whole new pair.

  4. says

    I spent my career in electronics. At one time, consumer electronics could be repaired. Not anymore. Items are designed to minimize production costs while keeping weight and size to a minimum (usually). Add to that the shift toward custom integrated circuits (over more generic parts), and you arrive at “when it breaks, throw it away”. In fact, if something like this breaks during warranty, it is quite likely that upon return, you will simply be given a brand new unit because it costs less to build a new one than to fix an old one. Part of this is the tendency to keep people’s hands off of items while being manufactured. As soon as someone has to touch it (like say, for calibration), the cost goes up. In order to fix something, you have to pay a skilled tech to diagnose the problem and then fix it. If you’ve ever looked at a modern circuit board, you might appreciate how difficult it is to remove and replace components. It’s not like the old days when you could desolder a transistor or some passive components and pop in new ones.

    Second thing: Sometimes, shipping cost is prohibitive given the low manufacturing cost of the item. There have been times when I went to return something purchased on-line, received my credit, and was then told to keep the item instead of returning it (“as a gesture of good” will is the usual claim). This seems to be especially true on Amazon if you have “free returns” (not all merchants do this). Why would the merchant pay $5 for you to return something that they can buy new for $4?

    Regarding the “buying multiple sizes/colors” thing, I think Amazon actually encourages this with their “try before you buy” clothing sales. You order something, they ship it to you, and you have 7 days to decide if you want it. If you do, THEN they charge your credit card, not at the time of purchase. I imagine this saves them some money on processing fees, but I also think it encourages waste. Not sure about the laws, but I assume if you send something back and they just toss it, then they can write off their cost of it.

  5. says

    @3 Tabby,
    Spot on. Back in college (some 45+ years ago), I bought an expensive pair of leather boots that I wore pretty much everywhere. I guess they were maybe twice the cost of the average pair. Eventually, the soles wore down and I brought them to a little shop in town that was known for its repairs. When I went back to pick them up, the little old man who repaired them handed them to me and said (with an obvious Italian accent in broken English), “Good boots!”. Those boots were resoled two or three more times, after which the little old man said “This is it. No more. Too much gone.”

    I was never afraid to buy something expensive if I knew it was high quality and would last. In the long run, it works out cheaper and the item usually works better, too. The problem these days is that nearly everything is designed to optimize lowest cost, so performance, reliability, and longevity go out the window. It makes me crazy when, after many years of use, an item needs to be replaced and all you can find are cheap knockoffs that you know will break in short order. One of the tell-tale signs of this is components that are made out of plastic that really should be made out of metal.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    At my bookstore we are seeing a new way to abuse our returns policy: aspiring writers write a book and then pay a vanity press to typeset it and make some cheap art for the cover, then they pay to have an ISBN assigned to it as a ‘Print on Demand’ book. Then, they or their friends order 3 to 10 copies and then return them to our store. We accept the return almost always and then put the books on our shelves. Thus, they get their amateurish book into stock at a major bookstore.

  7. Katydid says

    I agree with all the comments 1 -- 5. I learned something from Comment 6.

    My shoe advice: if you like a pair of shoes, get more than one pair at a time. It extends the life of a shoe to let it dry out between wearings.

    My bookstore strategy: I get most of my books from the public library. If I like something enough to know I’ll re-read it or keep it for reference, I buy a copy for myself at a bookstore. This avoids the issues with returning a book I thought I might like, but didn’t. I think there’s a place in hell for people who abuse their local bookstores.

    As for ordering things online: it’s such a crapshoot as to size and quality, even if you buy the exact same brand and size every time. Some companies switch between factories in different countries depending on which is cheaper when they place their order. Additionally, I’ve noticed that clothes made by certain designers for the big-box or outlet stores are sized completely differently than clothes made for department stores. It’s impossible to know what size any particular item is without trying it on.

    Then there’s the waste of fuel and delivery driver wages to ship inferior products back and forth.

    My strategy is to shop a couple of times a year, and if I find something that’s particularly great, I will buy several of that item at once. I am also not afraid to pay more for something that’s extraordinarily well-made. The adage “You get what you pay for” is most often true.

  8. oriana says

    it is genuinely impressive, but not surprising, that america has managed to successfully implement a library economy in the absolute worst way possible.

  9. Matt G says


    I have an iPhone 11 with a degraded battery. I had a battery replaced by Apple for my iPhone 6 after “batterygate” and vowed to never do it again because the phone didn’t get younger in the process. I’m planning to get the iPhone 15, but was curious about battery replacement for my 11. The website iFixit has a step-by-step procedure for doing it yourself. It had in the neighborhood of, I kid you not, 44 steps. That’s 88 when you consider putting it all back together again. Many of these steps are delicate, and the chances of damaging something seem really high. Apple, get ready to take my money for a new phone….

  10. Jazzlet says

    jimf @4
    Nokia are trying to boost their smart phone market by making a phone that is designed so you can replace the screen and battery yourself. I mentioned this to Mr J and he bought me one, which wasn’t what I’d intended, however as my old phone was becoming unreliable I am using the Nokia. It’s a little larger than I would have liked, but it seems to work fine for my minimal needs, and my perception is that it is easier to find eg the phones light setting in “settings” than it was on my Galaxy. This is relevant as my use of a phone is so low that I often don’t notice the battery is low, it switches everything to battery saving mode, then runs down completely and when I recharge it I can’t see much on the low light of the battery saving screen setting so I need the settings to be easy to navigate in those conditions, and they are. A ringing endorsment I am sure you will agree!

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Nokia still make phones?

    @6: your store will accept a “return” of an item it didn’t ever sell? I think I’d characterise what those authors are doing as “using” your returns policy, rather than “abusing” it.

    I’ve written 3 books published via POD, they’ve all got ISBNs I didn’t need to pay for, and they’ve sold pretty well online given the niche-within-a-niche they’re aimed at. Very early on when there was just the one it did occur to me to simply “donate” a copy or two to the bookstores in my home town, just out of curiosity to see if they’d sell -- I even considered going in in the morning, putting it on the shelf, then coming back in the afternoon and taking it to the till to buy it to see what happened. Never got round to trying that. But it would never have occurred to me to “return” a book they absolutely definitely had never had in stock, and the idea that a bookshop would accept such a return and even issue a “refund” boggles my mind. You’re essentially volunteering to buy as many copies as they can get away with “returning” of books at whatever price the author sets at that point, aren’t you?

    Come to that -- who returns books to a bookstore? On what grounds? Is your book faulty? (I did once read a book that had a binding error -- it got to page 125 or so, then just had pages 60-125 again, and again. Never found out how it ended. Would have asked for a refund/replacement for that, if it hadn’t been a library book…) You didn’t like it? Tough -- are people demanding refunds of cinema tickets for films they didn’t like?

    If we’re going down that route, I’m going to start invoicing Disney for the time I spent watching “The Book of Boba Fett”, “The Eternals” and “Moon Knight”. Ridiculous.

  12. Silentbob says

    I think Mano’s shopping habits are hilarious -- in a good way!

    I see why he likes Columbo.

    “I appreciate what you’re doing but I’ve had this coat for seven years”.
    Nun: “Oh, you poor man”!

  13. birgerjohansson says

    If I lived in USA I would hate the moral conflict of getting easy access to second-hand books and on the other hand supporting an immoral, very exploitative company (Amazon).

    Europe has this thing called “labor unions”, so Amazon cannot behave as badly here.

    I used to buy from Amazon UK, but Boris Johnson put an end to that with Brexit and with leaving the customs union. Customs fees now make this source impossible.

    And Amazon de suffers from the high postal rates in Germany.
    Two decades ago, there was this online thing called “” through which I would find second-hand books for American friends. I found out-of-print items by Stanislaw Lem or the Strugatsky brothers. Those were the days.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    Online items I have bought:
    -meteor fragments found at Meteor Crater
    -samples of sooty minerals from the Creatceous-Tertiary border line.
    -- amber with very old insects

  15. sonofrojblake says

    I thought to save a few quid 20 years ago by buying a second hand reserve parachute. My instructor, on hearing this, gave me the look entitled “withering”, and pointed out that three or five or seven years down the line, I might be looking up at what remained of my glider after it had macramed itself into its lines following some nasty turbulence. At that point, entering a catastrophic spin perhaps less than a thousand feet up, I’d reach for the red handle. At that point, would I be thinking how clever I had been, all those years before, to save £200 by buying second hand instead of new?

    I bought a new one.

    Five years later I *won* another one… and sold the old one to someone who didn’t mind buying second hand. /shrug/

  16. KG says


    Whenever I buy a book as a present, I make sure it can be returned if the intended recipient already has it or doesn’t fancy it. No bookshop where I’ve asked this has had a problem with it. But maybe you never buy books as presents.

  17. Trickster Goddess says

    Nokia still make phones?

    Microsoft bought Nokia and then when they failed at making phones, the original Nokia people licensed the name back and resumed making phones. I bought one 5 years ago this month and it’s still working fine. I got it because it uses raw Android without the bloatware that most manufacturers add to the OS. My previous phone was a Samsung and I’ll never buy one of those again. It was so sluggish because of all the unwanted and uninstallable crap running in the background (like Tunewiki). It took 10-15 seconds just to open up the camera.

  18. John Morales says

    As a result, some retailers will sometimes refund you your purchase price, especially if they are big items like sofa beds, dining tables, and the like, and ask you to keep the item.

    Wow! Really?

    I wouldn’t mind free big items like sofa beds, dining tables, and the like.
    Buy them, get them, keep them, get your money back. So they are free!


    (Shame that doesn’t happen here in Oz)

  19. sonofrojblake says

    @Trickster Goddess, 20:
    The comment re: Nokia was kind of sarcastically implying they’re a name from the past (like Atari, say) but hey, you’ve taught me something and I might actually make my next phone a Nokia as a result. Thanks!

  20. sonofrojblake says

    This still happens with cheap clothes, defective gadgets, and luxury items whose brand owners don’t want a presence at Ocean State Job Lot

    This is the most infuriating part of the whole story to me. The “brand owners” would sooner destroy something that let it fall into the hands of people who don’t match their brand image. Poor people, in other words. I mean, I get it -- Balenciaga would be less able to sell a handbag for $30,000 if a slightly defective but, crucially, genuine example could be seen on the arm of some chav in Asda. But simply shredding something like that simply because of minor cosmetic defects is to me morally reprehensible -- and that example is by the sound it just the tip of the iceberg.

  21. Jazzlet says


    It’s been happening for years, eg the makers of Liberty Lawns (fine high thread count fabric printed with detailed multi-colour designs) would burn whole bolts of cloth if one of the coulours had got out of register the sightest visible bit. Anyone who knows about such fabric woulld know and realise it was a second, but if they couldn’t afford the perfect lawn why deprive someone of the imperfect if they want it? And yes it makes me feel queasy to think of it.

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