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.