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Free Returns Are Complicated, Laborious, and Gross (theatlantic.com)
77 points by rjmunro 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments





Over the past few years, I've grown so accustomed to seeing "gross" become the new "problematic". Magic words that you sprinkle into headines or comments, in order to trigger credibility from a certain audience that is pre-conditioned to agree when they see that word.

It's been interesting to watch "problematic", a very dry and clinical sounding term, evolve into "gross", a far more openly moralistic declaration. The shift reflects a lot about trends in progressive thought and discourse itself over the past decade.

So much so, that it was actually jarring to discover that the headline actually meant... "gross"! As in, there are references to dead animals, etc in the body text. It's been so long since I've seen the word used in its classic sense, it was surprising!


The one that has always frustrated me is “valid,” which has mutated from a word to acknowledge something’s objective recognition under a well-recognised schema to one that simply signals that it matches the speaker’s viewpoint.

Not that I have any issue with people believing whatever they want to, but using a word associated with objectivity to lend your inherently subjective statement of opinion a false imprimatur of hard truth is certainly disingenuous.


I think what's going on is slightly different and adds value to the conversion - as far as I've seen the speaker is acknowledging an objective truth about something that has historically or otherwise been seen more subjectively. The classic example would probably be people feeling depressed or something and being told that's valid, because often people feel that they shouldn't feel that way. Basically someone saying "hey stop acting like that isn't a true/normal thing because it is".

On the flip side I can definitely see how someone would look at that and say "Well I subjectively don't agree with what you think is objective" - I don't really see a way around that. Ultimately we're all subjects and can't access objectivity directly so all communication is going to be subjective to some extent. One person might think it's "valid" to murder someone if it's legal in their situation, while someone else might think that's never a "valid" option, and both could be correct if one is talking about legality and the other is talking about morality


The visual of determining if something is clean, or just a pile of usable goods going to waste can trigger disgust across the ideological spectrum. Although, I do agree that usage of "problematic" has become annoyingly problematic.

This paragraph from the article is also blatantly untrue in the context of Amazon:

>We can dispense now with a common myth of modern shopping: The stuff you return probably isn’t restocked and sent back out to another hopeful owner

No, that's not really what happens: it's one of the biggest bugbears of third party Amazon sellers that FBA workers are biased towards restocking even damaged or dirty products. It creates problems for third party seller performance metrics and also issues for customers. The seller is blamed when a customer complains about such a damaged product. When possible most professional sellers prefer to process their own returns so that they can discard or repackage items that have been damaged.

Some of the statistics in the article also conflate the situation with apparel, in which huge proportions of likely returns must be factored in, with other categories in which return rates are really quite low. This is something that all sellers will know like the back of their hands because their return rates are in their dashboards and have to be planned for in all business metrics.

Furthermore, at least with Amazon, few items are "destroyed" even when they are slated to be destroyed. They are often resold on pallets to other sellers or directly to customers through Warehouse Deals. This causes problems when, say, items that have been alleged to be counterfeit are slated for "destruction" but instead wind up recirculated through Warehouse Deals or to liquidation sellers.

This paragraph touches on it without going into the full implications:

>This is why it’s difficult to accurately estimate what portion of returned merchandise is discarded, or even how much waste it adds up to, though we do know that billions of pounds of returns are thrown away in the U.S. every year. Joel Rampoldt, a managing director at the consulting firm AlixPartners, told me that most people in the industry believe that about 25 percent of returns are discarded, although the proportion varies widely depending on the product (clothing tends to be easier to resell than electronics that may contain user data, for example).

Even electronics slated for recycling or destruction often instead are sold to refurbishers. There's less waste than you might think when it's possible for actual junk to be resold as refurbished. The reason why it's not necessarily tracked is that the e-waste processing plant is not going to report to research firms about all the refurbishers that they sell to, even though there are pretty well built up electronics refurbishing certification organizations that promote the practice.

Not all journalists are bad: I've been a source (directly quoted and on background) on topics like this for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Verge, Bloomberg, and others and have sometimes been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work and thought that the journalist did. Quality of articles has very little to do with the brand of the publication and everything to do with the quality of the individuals involved in writing the article. In this I think she picked mostly good sources and touched on some of the major themes, but a lack of familiarity with the industry undermined her ability to synthesize all the information.

It seems like she kind of came into it with the preconceived notion that returns are bad for the environment, and then assembled a bunch of information that neither fully supported nor fully undermined that preconception.

What's also missing from this article is that free returns are essential for establishing customer trust in ecommerce before purchases are made. People are more confident to make the purchase when they know they can return it. They are just much more circumspect with their money when they can't return it. The cost of processing returns is lower than the cost of liquidation and restocking with new product, so that is why the practice has become particularly more prevalent with online retail.

That's what'd be challenging to measure. It's really an issue in which returns result in maybe 12.5% junk, 12.5% resalable, versus a situation in which maybe 60% of the stuff on the shelf would have to be liquidated because customers were more circumspect with making a purchase in the first place. Stopping returns in the name of the environment could easily have the unintended consequence of resulting in more discarded new products due to lack of customer confidence.


My son worked the returns line at an Amazon facility. I can 100% guarantee that stuff gets restocked and resold - including stuff that shouldn't be resold. My son can look at the packaging on newly delivered purchases from Amazon and tell you before you open it that it's been returned and resold.

Yes, there are split incentive issues here. The worker is incented by FBA's systems to repackage it for return unless the item completely destroyed. The seller is mad because they will get an angry alert from another automated tentacle of Amazon accusing them of selling inauthentic or damaged merchandise once the damaged return is discovered by another customer. The unit is considered by Amazon to have been in the seller's custody the entire time even if the unit has been maltreated by the first customer and by the warehouse worker who repacked it.

>My son can look at the packaging on newly delivered purchases from Amazon and tell you before you open it that it's been returned and resold.

what are the things to look for?


"The unit is considered by Amazon to have been in the seller's custody the entire time "

While it was actually i. amazon's custody.

I understand we have freedom of contract, but contract that directly contradict physical reality should be considered invalid or fraudulent.


Indeed there are many funny things in the Business Services Agreement that may be illegal and unconscionable, and such arguments can only be brought forth in binding arbitration.

I intentionally buy returned items from Amazon Warehouse for many cases. They’re cheaper and for a lot of items, it doesn’t matter in the least.

> Stopping returns in the name of the environment could easily have the unintended consequence of resulting in more discarded new products due to lack of customer confidence.

At least, until manufacturers compensate by producing less stuff. People consuming less is a good thing for the planet and a bad thing for the way our society is structured.


Some jobs are just gross. Plumbing. Cleaning school bathrooms. Pest control. Embalming. Urology.

Unless we never want our trash picked up, some folks are gonna have to work gross jobs.

What I find interesting and perhaps "problematic" is that these gross jobs do not always pay well.


It is remarkably egregious

There would be a lot less returns if descriptiong of products were actually accurate. I bought a 4K monitor an amazon, and it was a total mess - the heading said it's 1080p, but listed the right model. The body of the listing showed a different model, listed it as 4K, but had photos of my model.

It then had information about ports that was totally wrong for both models.

So how do I know if I should buy a cable, and which one it should be?

Is a correct description, size, wight, etc. Too much to ask?


I personally view conflicting information like that as a red flag. I would rather pass up a potential good deal than have to navigate a return from a questionable listing (or more likely, suffer with a bad product because I would blame myself for buying it).

Presumably some percentage of people have just gotten unlucky (or lucky). But when I see threads from people complaining about widespread fake/damaged/etc. goods from Amazon, I also suspect that a lot of people also just click on whatever the lowest price is given that the problems just don't line up with my general experience.

You could also, you know, close the page and buy the screen somewhere that strikes more confidence in you.

I actually really don't get why anyone would buy anything from Amazon unless they have no other choice. Their site is really the worst.

In this case, the solution is to buy from a retailer whose website isn't a "total mess".

I've been shopping for an appliance at websites for brick & mortar stores... they're also a total mess with mixed-up pictures of various models etc and no way to know what you're really getting. Best to do that in person, I guess...

Retailer specific models are one more fun aspect of this. So many slightly different version, just goes to show why there is so many letters in some model numbers.

was it one of those wierd things where a single article page actually lets you choose between multiple "versions", some of which can be radically different? i hate those, they should have limited them to colours and sizes

I've found a series of auction houses around Central Texas that handle the overflow from these returns. Generally, the stuff is "new" (still in the box) but the box itself was opened, damaged, or otherwise not sellable.

The downside is that it's a total crapshoot on what's available, what it goes for, and what condition it's in.

The upside is that 90%+ of the stuff I've gotten - a tent, a pull up bar, a Roomba, and lots of other things - have been in great shape and it didn't got to a landfill. I've had to replace screws and do minor fixes but after getting it 80% off, $1 worth of parts and 20 minutes of work is a great deal.


  > Free Returns Are Complicated, Laborious, and Gross
And yet, Apollo 13 would have been lost had it been on any other trajectory.

Only Apollo 8, 10, and 11 were flown on free return trajectories. Subsequent missions (quoting Wikipedia)

> used a hybrid trajectory that launched to a highly elliptical Earth orbit that fell short of the Moon with effectively a free return to the atmospheric entry corridor. They then performed a mid-course maneuver to change to a trans-Lunar trajectory that was not a free return.[5] This retained the safety characteristics of being on a free return upon launch and only departed from free return once the systems were checked out and the lunar module was docked with the command module, providing back-up maneuver capabilities. In fact, within hours after the accident, Apollo 13 used the lunar module to maneuver from its planned trajectory to a circumlunar free-return trajectory. Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission to actually turn around the Moon in a free-return trajectory (however, two hours after perilune, propulsion was applied to speed the return to Earth by 10 hours and move the landing spot from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean).

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-return_trajectory


Thank you, I did not know the details of the corrections maneuvers. Presumably those two burns were done with the LEM decent engine on this flight? That engine was relatively powerful and had restart capability.

Maybe retailers should have more precise and accurate sizing so folks don't have to try on three sizes of something to find one item that fits.

You mean manufacturers?

Sizing for people is complicated. Even if you get fitted by a tailor there's often some adjustment of the final product.

Maybe there could be more customization that doesn't require personal service, but people probably don't want to pay for semi-custom by and large just like most people don't pay to have tailored clothing. Just standardizing sizes by itself isn't sufficient because it's been well-researched that people are not "average" across many dimensions.


Exactly. For clothing and shoes free returns are a way to make the purchase safe for customers (and thus to make them actually order) who may be reluctant to order something that they don't know whether it will fit.

Occasionally, when asking for a return to Amazon, they'll say "we've refunded you, no need to return it!"

It kinda makes more sense than having it mailed back to be destroyed.


In many cases requiring that the item actually be returned is to prevent fraud.

For some cheap items I think Amazon concluded that the benefits in terms of costs to them and of customer satisfaction outweigh the risk and cost of fraud. I'm also sure that they have extensive data on their customers.


I'm not sure on the exist economics, but much of the "cost" of a return ends up being passed to the seller, so it's much easier for Amazon to green light returns much more loosely.

My roommate once got pretty lucky with this, in that he was accidentally sent a big projector screen that he in no way ordered. Being an oversize/awkward item it was easier to Amazon to say "eh keep it w/e" than pay for it to be shipped back.

That once happened to me when I bought a fancy glass sconce for the exterior of my house. It arrived smashed, and the representative from Amazon politely asked me if I could safely discard it. He mentioned that he didn't want anyone else to get cut when opening the package.

I happily closed the box up and put it in my trashcan, then ordered another.


Certainly cheaper for Amazon. It seems limited to 'cheap' items like books and such though.

Seems like the kind of inefficient system partially propped up by artificially cheap transportation costs.

A carbon tax levied on fossil fuels might change the economics of this. Or it might just accelerate the electrification of the reverse logistics chain. Either of which seems good.

The other piece is the cheap labor that makes this possible. Or maybe the problem is that the labor isn't cheap enough to be worth reprocessing things back into inventory? Even after reading I can't sort it out.


> We can dispense now with a common myth of modern shopping: The stuff you return probably isn’t restocked and sent back out to another hopeful owner. Many retailers don’t allow any opened product to be resold as new.

That doesn't seem true. I've had more than my fair share of items bought from amazon that were clearly not new and had been returned by a previous customer. I actually don't particularly mind in most cases for electronics since after all I've returned things in the past. Of course that's in the context of electronics and I guess when it comes to fashion, it's a lot more iffy.


another opportunity to plug https://wornwear.patagonia.com — i have far fewer compunctions buying there (or exchanging goods) than most places!

Why would you pay $65 for a used pair of outdoor hiking pants when you can get new pants cheaper? Talk about gross.

To some, the name and reputation of that brand's quality is what drives these second hand markets. Older Craftsman tools are like this, for example. You can't beat the quality of a certain era of hand tools from Crafstman.

Just last week I tried to find a Robogrip plier like I had twenty years ago. Impossible. And the set of three pliers that I paid about $29 for now sells - used and rusted - for well over $100.

https://www.ebay.com/itm/185024556116?hash=item2b1452ac54:g:...


Hey thanks for the reply, it's always a little less worse when there is someone out there sharing the same struggle! It's a shame we can't bring back the Craftsman company we once knew. An acquaintance had a household fire that melted a set of drivers and craftsman replaced with a full set no questions asked through the local Sears. I wish more companies were like this in 2021, but I understand why some can't- surely these policies have seen some level of abuse. Take care, I hope you find your grips. (Try estate sales)

I assume this is much more about either very lightly used/unused or the sort of things they normally sell in their outlets. I may be wrong but I doubt they are selling stuff that's truly worn out.

Not sure why you think it's gross. I know stores that sell used hiking/camping gear on commission. A lot of people buy such gear and then don't use it much.


At one point I was getting a lot of facebook ads for MTalyor

https://www.mtailor.com/how-it-works.html

which I guess is a digital app that will measure you for clothes.

I wonder if their percentages for returns are significantly different than industry averages,

if so, I wonder if the concept might not work as a add in across other clothing lines


I'm pretty sure that this sort of semi-custom clothing concept has been around since at least the dot-com era but it's never taken off. I suspect that it's some combination of people not willing to pay the premium and, loosely, fashion--i.e. most people aren't interested in just having a small number of perfectly fitting articles of clothing.

What is the problem? Capitalism as usual is you ask me. Brick-and-mortar stores are not cheap/clean/green/sustainable either (we have just become more accustomed to them, so we accept their "downsides").

If we as a society really have a problem with this we can outlaw trashing non-trash to some extend. Then hope for the whistle blowers to tell us what brands keep on trashing stuff that many people would happily accept.

The system we live in is not built on common sense ("why trash good things?"). It's built on profit maximization/ fast growth ("trashing is cheaper than restocking or brick-mortar"). So this is not likely to change. Sadly.


Another issue with all these free returns is that they try (and often succeed) to make us buy more while thinking less. Why would I consider carefully if I really want something if I can order it, use it for a couple days and _then_ decide if I want it?

Maybe this will lead to more standardization in clothing sizes. If I could accurately size myself in a particular company's goods then I'd probably not return anything. Note, in practice I'm already there, but my wife and daughter not even close...

Odd that it doesn't say anything about companies that sell bulk liquidation and returns direct to consumers/resellers (in some cases you need a wholesaler cert, which is really just paperwork)

There are companies that buy up returns and resell them, but I don't get the impression that these make up any significant part of that chain. Unsold lots from liquidations or just unsold remainders from large retailers: sure, those can be sold without too much hassle. But the heart of the matter seems to be that returned items will apparently quite quickly cost more than their worth to handle for eventual resale, and just shredding them (and not spend any time at all beyond unpacking, registering, and then dumping it in a bin) is cheaper. The only exceptions seem to be high-end items where a limited investment can make them suitable for resale as a discounted refurbished item, and even then there are reports of brand new televisions and tablets just ending up in a landfill¹.

1: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/23/charities-c...


Is that different from the deep discount stores like Big Lots mentioned in the article?

Yes. Some only sell to resellers. Some list on eBay directly. Some are semi scammy like Bulq.

I would expect that when returned clothing is not restocked, then it is at least sold to second-hand shops. They often offer newly-looking goods.

Its still shocking to me how big the new container ships are and that right now there is a huge line of ships from China all lined up, we can't get the containers off the ships fast enough. Its even worse to think that much of it will barely be used and go to landfill. https://losangeles.cbslocal.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/149...

If much of the stuff on the ships is not going to be used much, then eventually the stuff that is used will have higher prices and will therefore get priority on the ships. Moreover, if as you say much of this stuff is not important, then we're simply rolling in opulence and are simply complaining about luxuries getting to us a bit late.

Most retailers in the West just send returns to garbage. Even such things like giant flat panel TVs some times go to the shredded.


> These practices are essentially unregulated; companies do whatever they deem most profitable.

This right here. The government could take care and regulate online shopping to dis-incentivize "fast fashion" and other crap that essentially only helps kill off the planet faster.


Are you sure online shopping is killing the planet faster?

Whatever they're wasting in returns, they're saving something in reducing the need for physical stores.

I didn't see anything in the way of the discussion of these tradeoffs,

but physical locations for big box stores certainly aren't environmentally free.


> Whatever they're wasting in returns, they're saving something in reducing the need for physical stores.

A physical store presence has way more positive effect for a society as a whole than online shopping has. Just look at the developments of the last two decades: Walmart has destroyed local, reachable-by-foot grocery stores, and Amazon (plus corona) has obliterated physical retail. The result is entire communities that have no places left where people regularly come in contact with each other. Inner cities decay (see e.g. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/theres-terrifying-mall-blight...), quality of life declines, and social cohesion vanishes.

You want a reason why Trump got elected, why right-wing populism is on the rise across Western countries? The blight of physical store presence - or, to be precise, the providers of essential services vanishing - is a huge part of the reason why so many people feel disconnected from society. An empty mall, a village center void of any human presence, public services shutting down because the tax base of said stores has vanished? That is immediately visible to the people, and they, historically proven, vote for the person who claims the loudest he has a recipe to fix the situation or at least offers a convenient boogeyman (immigrants, China, Jews, ...).


>A physical store presence has way more positive effect for a society as a whole than online shopping has.

Yeah, but not for the planet.

It's incredibly inefficient for people to drive their car to a store and pick up items that take up like 5% of the total space in the vehicle; the ratio of fuel burned to goods shipped is terrible. Maybe grocery shopping isn't so bad, but going to the store to buy one TV or a few linens for the bedroom? What percent of the fuel burned was actually used to move the goods vs. to move the car? Not even 1%.

Compare this to filling up a diesel delivery truck to ship goods around town, optimized by algorithms for maximum efficiency.


> It's incredibly inefficient for people to drive their car to a store and pick up items that take up like 5% of the total space in the vehicle

In a well planned and funded city you'd have public transport to transport people to stores where they can look at and try out items before committing to buy them.

The fact that most goods that are returned (and a disturbingly large amount of goods that haven't been sold but incur high storage fees, see https://daserste.ndr.de/panorama/archiv/2021/Trotz-Neuregelu...) are actually destroyed is what makes the environmental balance so bad.




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