The Dark Side of Online Returns

The Dark Side of Online Returns

What happens to the stuff you order online after it’s sent back?

online returns consequences

We’re all shopping online more than ever. It's been on the rise for years, of course, but got a big boost during the pandemic—generating $791.7 billion in sales in 2020 and making up nearly 15% of all retail sales in the United States, according to the Census Bureau.

Research firm eMarketer estimates online shopping sales will easily surpass $1 trillion next year. Which makes sense. I can testify to how easy it is to buy online—it's an occupational hazard, you might say. I look at cool stuff all day and appreciate the satisfying simplicity of stored credit card numbers and one-click purchasing.

But as online shopping becomes ever more frictionless, there are some serious downsides that lead to a lot of waste and higher prices. Namely, returns care causing problems.

One-third to one-half of all clothing bought in the United States over the past year came from the internet. The pandemic didn't make it easy to shop in person, but more and more people are choosing to try on their clothes at home. Have you ever ordered a few sizes on a retailer's website and sent back the ones that don't fit? This is a common practice called “bracketing”.

A lot of stores encourage this, offering free shipping, free returns and frequent discount codes, all of which promote more buying—and more returns. Or as The Atlantic puts it: “In a race to acquire new customers and retain them at any cost, retailers have taught shoppers to behave in ways that are bad for virtually all involved.”

The process of getting unwanted items back from consumers and figuring out what to do with them is both time- and labor-intensive (and often kinda gross). This abyss of the “reverse supply chain” results in a lot of waste. Because the truth is that the stuff you return probably isn't restocked and sent back out to another shopper. Perfectly good stuff gets thrown away in these facilities all the time, simply because the financial math of doing anything else doesn't work out.

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Mysterious brands are flooding shopping sites and social media ads, making it difficult to tell the real from the low-quality.

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Online shopping tips
Online shopping tips

While customer satisfaction with online shopping generally was high—83% overall—the lowest satisfaction scores had to do with factors related to shipping and delivery. Herewith, a few things to keep in mind that will make the process simpler.