What Happens to All the Stuff We Return?

Online merchants changed the way we shop—and made “reverse logistics” into a booming new industry.

By David Owen

The twentysomething daughter of a friend of mine recently ordered half a dozen new dresses. She wasn’t planning to keep the lot; she’d been invited to the wedding of a college classmate and knew in advance that she was going to send back all but the one she liked best. “Swimsuits and dresses for weddings—you never buy just one,” Joanie Demer, a co-founder of the Krazy Coupon Lady, a shopping-strategy Web site, told me. For some online apparel retailers, returns now average forty per cent of sales.

Steady growth in Internet shopping has been accompanied by steady growth in returns of all kinds. 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.” Brick-and-mortar shoppers also return purchases. “Petco takes back dead fish,” Demer said. “Home Depot and Lowe’s let you return dead plants, for a year. You just have to be shameless enough to stand in line with the thing you killed.” It almost goes without saying that Americans are the world’s leading refund seekers; consumers in Japan seldom return anything.

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