Your Amazon Returns Might Cost More Than You Think

Your online returns may end up in a landfill

Key Takeaways

  • Online returns often end up in a landfill.
  • Returns cost businesses hundreds of billions every year. 
  • B-stock items are a rare case of win-win and should be the norm.
Someone measuring a package before shipping,

Bench Accounting / Unsplash

When you return something you ordered online, you might be condemning it to the landfill. But it doesn't have to be this way. 

In the US, returns of 'fast-fashion' clothing increased by 22% from 2020 to 2021, and suppliers have to not only eat the cost but often cannot resell those items. Amazon dumps or destroys returned items—one UK warehouse marks 130,000 items as 'destroy' every week. Meanwhile, buyers use the generous returns policies of online shopping as a kind of try-before-you-buy option. Knowing the consequences, is it ethical to buy just to test something and then send it back?

"There's a large carbon footprint associated with shipping things to and from customers," online clothing retailer Richard Clews told Lifewire via email. "Between this and the extra expense online retailers have to take on to process returns, I don't think it's right to buy something just to send it back later."

Return to Sender

Online shopping is extremely convenient, especially if you work from home. With next-day or same-day delivery, it's almost as good as walking to the store and trying something out in person.

"Return policies now play a big role in how people buy things online, providing a competitive advantage to those retailers that can provide the easy path to return items," Vipin Porwal, founder of online shopping app Smarty, told Lifewire via email.

"B-stock shopping should be the norm. It's good for the environment and prevents the store from suffering losses as well."

And the easy returns, as Smarty's Porwal says, are part of the appeal. Returning an item to a high-street store takes time, and you might have to explain yourself or end up not being able to return the item at all. With Amazon, you drop the parcel at the post office and let them scan your return QR code. 

The numbers back this up. Tobin Moore, CEO of returns solution provider Optoro, told CNBC that online buyers return three times as many products as in-store buyers. That results, he says, in almost 6 billion pounds of landfill waste every year. 

And yet Amazon now offers a Try Before You Buy service to Prime members. Clothing arrives with a pre-paid return label, and you just send back what you don't want. 

B-Stock and Open Box

The answer is to resell those returned items. We're familiar with open-box or b-stock items, and they don't have to be a gamble if the retailer does things right. 

German music equipment giant Thomann, which sells worldwide, offers a three-year warranty and a generous month-long return window. You can return for any reason and pay nothing (spending on where you are in the world). Returns are sold as b-stock items, with a full warranty, but often much cheaper than the new item.

A delivery vehicle full of boxes including some from Amazon.

Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

In Thomann's case, B-stock has no stigma or worry attached. In fact, it's the opposite. B-stock is seen as a way to save hundreds of dollars without the risk of buying used. And this kind of confidence is essential. 

"If consumers trust the open box is going to be a good purchase, they'll start buying it because they can save money with confidence," says Porwal. 

To do this, online retailers have to inspect returns, their packaging, and any accessories that might have shipped in the box. And they're up against other challenges, too. According to a report from the National Retail Federation, more than 10% of returns in 2021 were fraudulent. And yet the savings could be worth it. Returns added up to $761 billion in lost sales last year. 

"B-stock shopping should be the norm. It's good for the environment and prevents the store from suffering losses as well," Elice Max, co-owner of a shopping coupon service, told Lifewire via email. "Shoppers also get the option of saving their money on these items. There's no reason buying open-box or b-stock items should have any sort of taboo or stigma attached. In fact, environmental groups should encourage buyers to go for these products."

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