Goods returned by US consumers surged 78% in 2021

By Obey Manayiti and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

More than $760bn of products sent back, straining ‘reverse logistics’ companies and adding to landfills, survey shows

US consumers are handing back huge volumes of unwanted purchases, souring a record-setting holiday season for retailers and deepening a financial, environmental and customer service dilemma for brands. Retail returns surged 78 per cent to $761bn between 2020 and 2021, according to a National Retail Federation survey released on Tuesday. Last year 16.6 per cent of all retail sales were sent back compared to 10.6 per cent a year earlier, the survey found.

For the peak holiday season in November and December, retailers expect returns to have jumped by more than half from $101bn to $158bn, the NRF reported. That growth far outstrips the estimated 14.5 per cent rise in retailers’ holiday sales last year. Returns have increased during the pandemic in part because Americans have bought so much more online. By Adobe’s estimates, US ecommerce revenues rose by 43.5 per cent between the 2019 and 2021 holiday seasons. The NRF survey estimated that more than a fifth of last year’s online sales — worth $218bn — will be returned, with more than $23bn of those returns deemed fraudulent.

“That’s particularly problematic for an industry where profit margins are slim,” said Mark Mathews, an NRF industry analyst. The growth in returns was “a little bit anomalous”, he said, “but we live in anomalous times”.

Sign up for news and tips like this, straight to your inbox