Americans Return a Mind-Boggling Amount of Stuff

'New Yorker' explores the whole new industry that has arisen to deal with it
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 19, 2023 11:30 AM CDT
The Amount of Stuff We Return Is Mind-Boggling
   (Getty / Ridofranz)

More than a century ago, JC Penney pioneered the concept of no-questions-asked returns. Even so, the return rate was maybe 2%, writes David Owen in the New Yorker. In today's age of internet shopping, the return rate is closer to 20% and perhaps twice that for items of clothing. The business of handling returns is now a business unto itself, and Owen takes an in-depth look. One jaw-dropping stat cited is that winter holiday returns in the US amount to more than $300 billion. "So one and a half per cent of US GDP—which would be bigger than the GDP of many countries around the world—is just the stuff that people got for Christmas and said, 'Nah, do they have blue?'" says an Arizona State business professor. Annually, the retailed value of returned stuff is nearing $1 trillion. The figures may seem abstract, but Owen gets tangible by tracking what happens to all these returned goods.

For starters, few get repackaged and sold as new. Instead, a whole new industry of companies—one trade group name is the Reverse Logistics Association—has sprung up to buy returned items for pennies on the dollar, then resell them to mom-and-pop stores, shred them for metal or plastic, or perhaps take a crack at refurbishing damaged items. (The examples are endless: Lots of pressure washers get returned because people don't like to read directions and neglect to hook the devices to a water line before turning them on, thus burning out the motors.) Refurbs might end up at discount stories such as Ollie's. The full story explores all facets of this, including our ditch-it-don't-fix-it culture, and notes that anyone can register to be a buyer of bulk returned items at a company called Liquidity Services. (Or check out other longform stories.)

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