"Assorted"—his voice catches—"intimate clothing. Ropa íntima."
November 14, 2017 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Returning stuff is an American pastime, a tradition even. The industry-wide consensus is that 8 to 10 percent of all goods bought in the U.S. will be returned. For online sales, the rate is much higher, in the range of 25 to 40 percent. So...what happens to it all?
posted by Chrysostom (31 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I recently leaned about these liquidators as well while driving past one outside of Chicago.

If you want to see what this stuff looks like firsthand, you can visit Shorewood Liquidators for the gory images. Maybe even find a bargain! (local pickup only, please)
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:54 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

That was a delightful read, and captured what I love about shopping at Grocery Outlet, where I take equal pleasure in buying half price organic produce as I do in discovering some bizzaro rejected test market snack product, like, I don't know, quinoa crunch cereal bars or something.
posted by latkes at 10:31 PM on November 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

KKR, the New York-based private-equity giant that symbolized the 1980s leveraged-buyout craze, recently invested in a Mississippi-based reverse logistics company that runs "extreme value" stores named Dirt Cheap and Treasure Hunt.

Not sure how I feel about the former Hudson's Salvage stores falling into the clutches of private equity investors. Hudson's was super fun when I was a kid: all kinds of merchandise from disparate sources, often slightly damaged by fire or flood.

I miss that kind of shopping, though nowadays I'm not so desperate for more books that I'm willing to spend that much time searching through unsorted shelves. There was something magical about finding the new volume of the fantasy series I was reading just after I'd finished the previous one. And it didn't even smell funny!
posted by asperity at 11:15 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks, I've always been interested in how this works.
posted by bongo_x at 11:31 PM on November 14, 2017

For online sales, the rate is much higher, in the range of 25 to 40 percent.

Yikes. People are buying risky items online, I guess.

I buy books online. I've only ever had to make one return. It was from a very reliable publisher but this book was misprinted and missing pages. My return rate must be some small fraction of a percent.

But I would never buy my clothes online. If I can't hold it and try it on, or at least hold it up to myself and guess the fit, I'm not interested.
posted by pracowity at 12:28 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I buy literally everything online, and also sometimes return stuff. Looking back at the stuff I have returned, I think 100% of it was defective. I am fortunate enough to have a body shape that fits most cheaply manufactured clothes, though, and also don't care about style, so I am sure that helps.

Of all the food I have bought, I have never had a problem with the stuff I've gotten from reputable sources. My wife and I like to order weird stuff from websites that specialize in expiring stuff, but that is always deeply discounted and in the rare event that we get something that doesn't meet our expectations, we consider that part of the risk.

I have never seen those return liquidators before, and honestly that is just the kind of junk I like. I wonder if they have anything like that in Korea.
posted by Literaryhero at 12:44 AM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

> If I can't hold it and try it on, or at least hold it up to myself and guess the fit, I'm not interested.

But surely that's why return rates are so high? You order three different sizes of three different variations of the thing you think you might like and then return the ones that aren't right. Online retailers of things like clothes expect that people won't buy what they haven't seen in person and thus expect this kind of return rate. It's a drop in the ocean of high street rents (and staff and power and...).
posted by merlynkline at 12:52 AM on November 15, 2017

But I would never buy my clothes online. If I can't hold it and try it on, or at least hold it up to myself and guess the fit, I'm not interested.

For anyone with an out-of-the-norm body (very petite, very tall, large, etc) online shopping can be the only viable option, and sizing can be so iffy that it's impossible to buy without having to make at least some returns. I liked learning that there is a resale stream where at least some of these things can be put to use, rather than being thrown away.
posted by Orlop at 4:29 AM on November 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

As someone with a very out-of-the-norm body, I never buy any clothes online because I can practically guarantee they won't fit me, and I fucking hate returning stuff. Brick and mortar stores with fitting rooms, or less than one in twenty items would fit at all (nevermind fitting well).
posted by Dysk at 5:03 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

As someone with a very out-of-the-norm body, I never buy any clothes online because I can practically guarantee they won't fit me, and I fucking hate returning stuff.

I should have said, "For many people...," because of course YMMV.
posted by Orlop at 5:18 AM on November 15, 2017

Sorry, yeah, that was intended as a counterpoint, not a call out or whatever!
posted by Dysk at 5:22 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm always surprised when I see people on US sites talking about returning used makeup. In the UK, you absolutely cannot do this, except if maybe you have an allergic reaction. The idea of buying an eyeshadow palette, wearing it a couple of times and deciding you don't really need it and returning it is so far from the norm here. I've even had a return refused for a completely unopened product here, because 'we don't know where you've stored it after leaving the shop, it could change the product'.

I know it's a bit different there as you don't tend to have testers for products in drugstores, so you are often buying blind, but I'm torn between thinking it sounds great and would avoid the graveyard of not quite suitable products many people have, and thinking it sounds incredibly wasteful.

As someone with a very out-of-the-norm body, I never buy any clothes online because I can practically guarantee they won't fit me, and I fucking hate returning stuff.

I find I do have to buy things online because the sizes I need are never in stores. I got tired of asking for a shoe in a size nine and for the assistant to come back either with a box and the words 'Well, we don't have that, but we do have a seven you can try?' (thanks, my toes are detatchable) or without a box and the words 'We don't have them - they tend to sell out quickly?' With things like bras, I don't know whether the same size in a different style will properly fit, so I have to order a few different ones to try - I tried to try on a bra in stores a while ago and had to go to four big city centre department stores to find one in stock in my size, and even then it wasn't the right colour.
posted by mippy at 5:23 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

~For online sales, the rate is much higher, in the range of 25 to 40 percent.
~Yikes. People are buying risky items online, I guess.

More like buying an item of clothing in different sizes, trying them on at home, then returning the ones that didn't fit. I have to do that all the time for pants.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:34 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

See for me, it's "so you have an eleven?" to which the answer is usually "no" but ven if it is "yes" there's at least an 80% chance that my feet will be far too wide for them. With tops, any given size can end up being "correct" but more likely, none of the sizes on offer have broad enough shoulders and long enough sleeves. I can see going online to solve the problem of "I need an unusual size" but it doesn't really work for the problem of "my body is weirdly shaped in a way that the sizing system doesn't accommodate".
posted by Dysk at 5:40 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seriously, the fit of an item of clothing is not one dimensional! (Except maybe the volume of liquid in a spray-on shirt? Not that I have ever...) A single number for a "size" won't ever be enough.

Trying things on is a necessity if you care even slightly.
posted by merlynkline at 5:48 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

But I would never buy my clothes online. If I can't hold it and try it on, or at least hold it up to myself and guess the fit, I'm not interested.

I'm tall (not NBA-tall, just regular tall, as in tall sizing but not personal tailoring) so online and catalogs are basically the only realistic choices. I try not to return more than necessary, but sometimes the only option is to order two sizes and see which is going to work. And sometimes the piece of clothing just turns out to be not that great -- weird material or color, say. So the return rates mentioned in the article don't really surprise me, and I'd guess for some retailers those might even be low.

It's a neat article and makes me want to know more about the whole industry and how it might evolve over the next few years.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

It would be really awesome if I could shop in brick-and-mortar stores and try on everything before I commit to purchasing it, but the world I live in is one where I have a full-time job, a spouse with a full-time job, a young child, a faith community, that child's school, and a larger world going to hell in a handbasket, all of which are continuously asking more of me every week.

In addition, I live in that part of the world that many people refer to as 'flyover country,' and while we have some major retailers available within a 30-minute drive, many require a full day-trip (with attendant fossil-fuel usage, etc.) to visit.

Ordering three things online at work on a break, trying them on at 9:30 pm after the kiddo is asleep, and sending back the two (or three) that don't fit by dropping them in a streetside UPS or FedEx box on my way from work to aftercare constitutes 95% of the way I can keep decent clothes on my back.

Do not even come at me with "but local retailers!"
posted by spamloaf at 6:26 AM on November 15, 2017 [13 favorites]

"Many of these are returned goods. Others are damaged or defective. Others still are shelf-pulls—products that failed to sell at the retail level and got cleared out to make way for the next season's products."

I feel like this article is conflating a few different issues, and trying to tie them all to returns. Like, what's the takeaway here? Assume retailers never restock your returns? I'm pretty sure that's not true? I admit I started skimming towards the end, but it never seems to come around to what portion of returns are dumped/liquidated/whatever, and what portion of these dumped products are returns in new condition vs. not. And whether those numbers are worse for online retailers.
posted by gueneverey at 7:04 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Interesting article!

In Canada, Princess Auto has a "surplus" section that I believe contains overstocks, and sometimes returns and repacks. Occasionally they have spot sales, or even a sale on their own returns: I got a returned gas waterpump "as-is" for like $35 (just took a tweak to the throttle to make it run fine), and we got a 8000 BTU air conditioner this spring for $75. Elsewhere I scored a 900W inverter generator ("repaired return") for $150 as-is, but it's been fine too.

So, if you're a little handy and not bothered by the odd scuff, you can score some great prices.

gueneverey - I think 'returns' is a reasonable catch-all term for this stuff. There's consumer returns - for reasons of size, defect, incomplete, or simply dissatisfaction, and returns from the store or chain itself - unsold stuff, because it's cheaper to just discount it than to store til next season.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:15 AM on November 15, 2017

I'm always fascinated by this, because I will--given the choice between shopping new and shopping a refurb or a returned piece of equipment for maybe 10% or 20% off--nearly always go for the refurb or the return, as long as it works. This almost never bites me in the ass, and in my experience if it comes with a ding or something on it, well, who cares? I got a nice piece of gear for cheap, and there's no guarantee I wouldn't have dinged it myself just as quickly.

At the Petco my partner worked at briefly, instructions were to destroy or throw out all returned merch, which always seemed like a waste--at doubly so when a customer, for example, returned a nearly-new porcelain Drinkwell cat fountain for "not working" when it was clearly obvious that she hadn't filled the damn thing up all the way with water. I believe that the shop employees "threw that one away" by placing it neatly next to the Dumpster, where it subsequently neatly disappeared. Unrelatedly, we have a quite nice cat fountain that has been bubbling happily away for a few years now.

It's interesting that they're lumping in pawnshops onto this, too: partner's now working at one of those, and they are much stricter about what they will and will not take than a lot of people who aren't familiar with pawnshops tend to expect. Their shop pretty much stocks jewelry, electronics, musical equipment, power tools and construction equipment, bikes, DVDs that are basically used as freebies to sweeten pots and otherwise go for a buck apiece, and stuff like TVs and laptops. Stuff that anyone might want, if they're okay with it being a generation or two old for tech or maybe a bit dinged on one side. Folks defaulting on pawned stuff does happen, and they'll take a wider range of things for pawn than they will for sale, but often those defaults don't make it out on the shop floor if it's something that isn't easily resellable. Grilles, for example, are just straight out sent to jewelers to be melted down for parts.

It seems like a very, very different market from the kinds of "returned goods" they're talking about here, is I guess what I'm thinking. Particularly given the way that pawnshops usually acquire their stock--the ones I know tend to view items bought with a more than slightly jaundiced eye, in part because commission for pawnbrokers comes to both the person who sells an item and the person who initially buys it for the store, and everyone wants to maximize that profit.
posted by sciatrix at 7:56 AM on November 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

The online stores presumably have the return rate factored into their business model. I mean, there's a reason that online clothing and online shoe stores prominently advertise "free returns!". They know that's the only way to get people to take the risk inherent in buying something like clothes or shoes (or underwear, or whatever) sight-unseen.

And compared to the overhead of running a brick-and-mortar store, or whole bunch of brick-and-mortar stores that you'd need to reach the same customers, it's probably much cheaper to just eat the cost of the un-resellable returns.

It is sort of perverse, though, that the businesses that sell goods that would be most easily resold after being returned (computers, electronics, etc.) tend not to allow returns or have punitive "restock fee" policies, while places that sell stuff that probably can't be resold as "new" once it's been returned, tend to have pretty liberal policies. But it's the result of pretty rational decisions happening all along the chain.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:10 AM on November 15, 2017

The article mentions how returns are a very American experience. I'm curious what other countries do -- is everything caveat emptor ?

(TFA hand-waves about defective vs "don't like it" returns -- I'd assume defective/doesn't work returns are true everywhere ? )
posted by k5.user at 8:26 AM on November 15, 2017

is everything caveat emptor ?

Where I live (Poland), you go and see if it's what you want. If you like it, if it fits, if it has no holes, if the seams are solid, you buy it, and it had better be demonstrably defective if you're going to wear it to the party and then expect your money back. Or maybe they are looser about things these days. I'm not a big consumer. There may be "What was I thinking?!" and "OK, I'm way fatter than I had convinced myself in the store yesterday" options now. We've been in the EU since 2004 and have to follow EU practices.

As for broken stuff, most electronics and things like that are covered by the manufacturer's warranty and, as above, we have to follow EU practices anyway, so that's not a big deal to the store as long as you have a receipt to show you didn't steal it. But it used to be that the cashier tested certain stuff at the cash register before you went out the door. For example, she would try each light bulb you bought in a socket at the checkout to demonstrate that it worked to your satisfaction and hers. Maybe people were bringing back old bulbs and claiming they were new ones that didn't work when they got them home? But I don't think they do that testing anymore. I haven't noticed it recently, anyway.
posted by pracowity at 10:19 AM on November 15, 2017

My assumption was that a lot of the clothing I end up returning is restocked, since they usually indicate you have to have left the tags on, or that sort of thing. I'm about to return a pair of boots that alas have not worked for my very obnoxiously wide feet. I wore them in the house only, but when I turned them over there were clear indications that somebody had worn them outside at least once, so clearly they were sent back out into the world as new. And if they had fit, that would be fine, because otherwise they were in good condition.
posted by PussKillian at 10:35 AM on November 15, 2017

There's an unclaimed freight store in Peoria, which is sort-of a similar thing but the problem occurred between manufacturer and retailer rather than retailer and shopper. It could be damaged, it could have been accidentally dropped from the inventory management system at some point, the retailer could have gone out of business, the goods could be defective (usually mis-printed) and delivery refused. Unclaimed freight dealers buy this stuff for like ten cents on the dollar (liquor costs more) and then some of them have stores where you go and wander amongst the glory of the unclaimed freight for 500 coffee mugs for "Showatowa High School Homecoming 2002" and a handful of messenger bags with the CNN logo but it says "CNM" because someone programmed the embroidery machine wrong and furniture with minor cosmetic dings and gardening supplies that got delivered late and shittons of flooring, flooring companies must go out of business non-stop, and ALL THE LIQUOR IN THE WORLD because small liquor outlets DO go out of business non-stop, or lose their liquor licenses. Also very well-represented: suites of hokey decor that seem intended for your themed business, like if you were running a beach-themed fish restaurant.

Anyway they're pretty glorious places full of INCREDIBLY weird stuff if you happen to live near one. We used to go on purpose to get alcohol for a party at a great discount, or to peruse the furniture and appliances (because who cares if a child's bed has a small ding? It's about to have 47 dings and divots the day you give it to your kid!), which was hit-and-miss. And sometimes we went just to wander around and enjoy the glorious weirdness and buy bizarre articles of novelty clothing for $2.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:26 AM on November 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

My assumption was that a lot of the clothing I end up returning is restocked

That was mine too. I already knew my clothing consumption is wasteful but I suppose I have to know it again and work on controlling it.

And, I want to find an unclaimed freight store! I remember Grocery Outlet (especially because my sister likes to sing their jingle) from living in Kentucky but I have never seen one in the midwest.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:52 AM on November 15, 2017

That's a very interesting article. I'd like to shop at The Outlet by E.L.S. - it sounds like you could find some interesting stuff. My experience with stores like Ross and Nordstrom Rack is that they don't have much restock or things that failed to sell in their clothing areas - they pretty much only sell lower end brands newly manufactured specifically for sale in those stores. Ross is great for household items, pet supplies, and rando craft supplies though. Nordstrom Rack is not great for anything.

I got tired of asking for a shoe in a size nine and for the assistant to come back either with a box and the words 'Well, we don't have that, but we do have a seven you can try?' (thanks, my toes are detatchable) or without a box and the words 'We don't have them - they tend to sell out quickly?'

I was an early adopter of shopping online (with Zappos) because of this very issue. Playing "go fish" with department store employees for a woman's size 10 is not an acceptable use of my extremely limited free time. I had to give up shoe shopping in person after I got unreasonably angry with sales people who would vanish for long periods and come back with no shoes in my size, over and over.

And how rewarding, after decades of being the sad fat girl searching for the largest size on the rack in the store and striking out, now I can exclude anything that's not my size from a search, and really reduce a lot of time wasting, frustration, and public humiliation.

I've been more mindful about returns since learning that stuff doesn't get restocked and instead ends up in this churning process, but as long as I have very limited free time yet am expected to wear nice, new clothing to work in, I'll be ordering that clothing from online.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:12 PM on November 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

But I would never buy my clothes online. If I can't hold it and try it on, or at least hold it up to myself and guess the fit, I'm not interested.

ok, a good plan in theory, obviously. BUT. women's clothing from (idk what to call this level of store cost? midrange inexpensive?) places like Old Navy, you can go into the physical store, try on two identical items in the same size from the same shelf but in two different colors and have the fit be completely different. it's not even a case of one being regular sizes and the other being petites, it's a matter of factory quality control, or possibly just mislabeling. this is pretty standard in this level of cost.

so when ordering stuff online, as i know from these many previous experiences that sizing for women's clothing is a fucking hellish nightmare, i will buy stuff in a variety of sizes and return the ones that don't fit, because there's no guarantee that even buying an item identical to one i already own will give me an identical fit.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:44 PM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have a sudden urge to binge-watch Lake Dredge Appraisal.
posted by flabdablet at 5:37 AM on November 16, 2017

Re Costco: I was volunteering at a food bank once and saw a huge amount of donations that I recognized as coming from there. A staffer told me that it was Costco returns. It wasn't just food -- there was a sled, too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:34 AM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I had no idea stuff doesn't get restocked when you return it. But at the same time - add me to the list of people who can't find clothes that fit in my small town and so have no choice. They don't stock my size (petite). I once needed a work-appropriate outfit the next day. I went to FIVE local stores - both chains and little local shops - and didn't find what I needed. There are many things I can literally only buy online now. Not to mention, sizes are inconsistent year to year so the basic GAP tshirt or jeans that fit me last year may not fit the same this year. What are customers supposed to do, if you can't get something locally and online is such a crap shoot? (Today the USPS picked up two boxes of returns for me. I bought 20-25 items from two shops and kept 5; nothing else fit.)
posted by john_snow at 12:49 PM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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