Here’s What Really Happens To The Stuff You Return

Canadians return roughly $46-billion worth of goods annually, costing retailers massively.

If the holiday lead-up and Boxing Day madness wasn’t chaotic enough for retailers, things don’t get much easier in January; the month of returns – both in-store and via the mail. Year-round, however, it’s easier than ever to return something that isn’t quite right thanks to the online shopping craze and the ability it offers shoppers to find another option in a few quick clicks.

Free return policies allow us to send something back as simply as a trip to the nearest post office.

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What many otherwise savvy shoppers may not know, however, is that most products – even those in perfect condition and in unopened boxes – don’t always go back on store shelves, according to CBC. Returning unwanted items is also contributing to a growing carbon footprint.

In fact, Canadians return roughly $46 billion worth of goods annually, costing retailers massively.

While certain retailers may quickly resell some goods – like that pair of shoes or jacket you realized didn’t work with your wardrobe and returned to the store at the mall – most returns, especially when it comes to online shopping, end up in a crowded warehouse with other unwanted products.

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Contrary to popular belief, most items don’t arrive back at the retail outlets they came from. 

The warehouses they now call home are operated by third party companies and logistics firms who organize, catalog, and refurbish the products before selling them at largely discounted wholesale prices to individuals, discount retailers, flea markets, and eBay sellers via a company website or sites like Amazon. As CBC highlights, these companies will take a commission, and the sales revenue will go back to the retailer.

While this is not widely known, it’s not that surprising. For starters, many companies may only want to be associated with a shiny, new, untouched product to maintain the integrity and values of their brand. Secondly, by the time the product has been sent back to distribution and repackaged, it could have gone on sale in-store or been discontinued. Finally, some retailers simply don’t have the capacity to handle the inflow of unwanted product and would rather save the costs of having to deal with returned items by outsourcing.

According to the Economist, dealing with these items can amount to a tenth of the cost of making and distributing them to begin with.

As the Economist highlights, the more high-tech and sophisticated firms will plot the possible fate of a returned item in advance – before the product even goes on sale – to ensure that the item can be redirected quickly and efficiently once it’s returned and sent to a warehouse. Some companies have computer software that asks warehouse workers questions that will determine the outcome for various products. Some perfectly good products will actually be destroyed all together – either burned or shredded – to avoid getting into the hands of discount retailers and therefore compromising the brand’s image or intellectual property rights.

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Sadly, some discarded products will inevitably end up in landfills, eventually creating a growing carbon footprint.  

Landfills aside, even the logistics involved in the transportation of the unwanted goods also creates a carbon footprint that isn’t likely to shrink any time soon. Though some retailers have tried to curb returns in recent years with things like shorter return periods or limitations on what can be returned, the reality is that return rates are only going to climb as an increasing number of consumers get more comfortable with online shopping.

When it comes to returns, some shoppers are more honest about it than others. While many articles of clothing or household goods are returned simply because they don’t work, or – especially in the wake of bridal and baby showers – they are a duplicate gift, according to Business Insider, “wear-and-return” fraud is a huge problem and costs retailers billions each holiday season. Sneaky cash-strapped style seekers will wear an article of clothing once – discreetly hiding the tags – only to return the item to the store for a full refund. Some will even damage an item before returning it. Tacky? Yes; but a reality.

At the end of the day, if you can’t bring yourself to feel bad for the big billion-dollar retailers when it comes to returns, take the environment into account. While it may make sense for the avid online shopper to buy something in three sizes and return the two that don’t fit, doing so may not be as an enticing of an option if you consider the potential environmental impact in doing so. But that’s just us.

Featured image: Pexels

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