A core sample drilled through the digital crust of platform capitalism
January 26, 2019 6:25 AM   Subscribe

If you've ever returned something to Amazon, it might have ended up as part of someone's Pallet of Assorted Appliances and Home items. The "reverse supply chain", as one liquidation company calls it, is growing in popularity as people hope to get rich quick by buying pallets of returns and re-selling the items for closer to their market price. But if you'd rather not risk getting stuck with five dog hoodies, you can get [some] of the [thrill] of [unboxing] from Youtube.
posted by Vesihiisi (29 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
My dad did this for a while in the UK, he'd fix up the electrical stuff and re-sell it. He managed to get me a fancy bean-to-cup coffee machine worth hundreds of pounds for about fifty quid (I love that machine just slightly less than I love my husband. He possibly loves it more than me).

He stopped when his usual auction place closed down, and the other options mostly sold cheap argos returns which were so low priced even at original retail that it wasn't worth the time. He still has about twenty irons in the garage.
posted by stillnocturnal at 6:55 AM on January 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


I once walked past my local auction house to see a man stuffing a trailer full of cushions. It was a large trailer by English standards, we're talking almost garden shed sized. I then looked in his car, and that too was full of cushions. More cushions than any one man could ever need, of various qualities but mostly... bad. I guess he won a job lot of cushions and he was determined to take them all home, come what may, because goddammit he paid for them. Which is what I think about whenever somebody says 'auction house' to me: all the crap you can handle, and then some, and it's technically worth money.
posted by The River Ivel at 7:07 AM on January 26, 2019


Search that site carefully... lest you stumble upon the palette of KY Jelly for $100 in New Jersey. Some things can never be un-thought of...
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:07 AM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I should add, if he wasn't able to PAT test and fix all this stuff, he wouldn't have made a penny. The amount of stuff returned used / broken was a significant percentage, probably more than half. Also microwaves are basically a write-off, because no postal services would insure them due to the glass and a bunch inevitably got broken in transit.

Once, we opened an appliance box to find somebody's old, used trainers. Argos clearly doesn't give a shit about checking returns, I don't know if Amazon does better.
posted by stillnocturnal at 7:10 AM on January 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


There's actually a place here in Kansas City that buys these, and then re-sells all of the stuff in an "everything's $5" model.
posted by jferg at 7:14 AM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Much is probably tided a bit and sent right back into the amazon churn (supply chain) as open box like new discount. For the cost of shipping amazon is again getting cheap/free labor on the backs of the proletariat.
posted by sammyo at 7:19 AM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


Don’t get discouraged if you’re halfway through your pallet and it’s all trash,” he said. In his business, it’s typical to throw away a third to half of everything.

Much of it apparently ends up in landfills.
posted by Frowner at 7:36 AM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Clicked on the "thrill" link - somebody "returned" a set of headphones by putting a couple of weights and a towel into the box and it doesn’t get discovered until this guy buys the liquidation box? I guess that makes sense.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:48 AM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


somebody "returned" a set of headphones by putting a couple of weights and a towel into the box

I used to work for the UK postal service and the common scam at that time was to claim you'd sent a videocamera or something else comparatively expensive via the most highly-insured class of mail and then claim that when it arrived, the expensive item had been "mysteriously replaced by potatoes" of the same weight as the item during transit. (which was impossible, given the processes used for that class of mail). In theory you'd get paid ~£500 in compensation for a box of potatoes that weighed as much as a videocamera. The fraud department became wise to it after it happened more than a couple of times.
posted by terretu at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


So they've outsourced the process of screening returns for landfill, and convinced people to pay to do it for them. This Bezos guy is really clever.
posted by hank at 8:56 AM on January 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


The manic tics and conventions of YouTubers are really, really hard for me to take. That said, this part in the lifespan of any given retail thing is interesting, one I had never thought much about.
posted by salt grass at 9:15 AM on January 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is how we kill ourselves, under a pile of,garbage no one wants or needs.
posted by The Whelk at 10:30 AM on January 26, 2019 [14 favorites]


Well I mean, a lot of this stuff is not returned in saleable condition and there's no way it's ever going to be worth it for Amazon to spiff it up and repackage it on a case-by-case basis. (For the stuff that's a slam dunk e.g. moderate damage to packaging only, they often do re-sell it at a discounted rate.) Auctioning it off to people for whom it is worth their time is one way to avoid just throwing it all away. A whole lot of it still gets thrown away, but somewhat less than otherwise.

I mean down with Amazon and everything, but in a world in which Amazon exists this seems like a reasonable way to try and recover some of the value from perfectly usable things that would otherwise have gone straight to landfill.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:15 AM on January 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think The Whelk has a much bigger idea about how to solve the problem.
posted by notyou at 11:42 AM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Agreed that this seems like a reasonable way to reduce waste under certain premises, but I also wonder how much those premises are due to neglecting externalities.

"An estimated 25 to 30 percent of online purchases are sent back, about triple the rate for items bought in-store, according to a recent report by Worldwide Business Research. For clothing and shoes purchased online, the return rate can be as high as 40 percent." (WaPo: After shoppers return items, some buyers try selling them again)

I don't know what fraction of that 25-30% return rate ultimately ends up in a landfill, but it feels like the kind of efficiency that only works if you're allowed to write off a bunch of costs as someone else's problem. Would be happy to be proved wrong, of course.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 11:48 AM on January 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


I first went to live auctions in the early 90's and what I observed was that people paid way to much given the amount of hassle to buy anything that was within the description of the auction. These were liquidations of contractors, industrial companies that sort of thing. The auction would take place on the site of what was closing down and would be salted with a bunch more from other places. I think a lot of people with time on their hands would show up and over bid out of boredom. If something went for a good price it was usually because it was not in the category of what was advertised. A nice 1960 Volvo Sedan that ran went for 100 bucks whereas a case of tape at a commercial painters liquidation went for about 20% over what you pay retail.

One auction I went to was at a plywood/lumber yard. I overheard the owner talking to the auctioneer and he was very pleased, he was just reducing useless inventory and was surprised how much money he was making.
posted by Pembquist at 12:03 PM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


The only times i’ve returned things to Amazon is when they were damaged in shipping because Amazon won’t pack things as well as they used to. It’s gotten to the point that there are a few items i can effectively only get on Amazon but i will not order; i don’t think the underpaid drones will ever pack them correctly, even if it is a replacement for a damaged shipment.

In Amazon’s first ten years or so, i never had this problem. I’d gladly pay more for better packing material plus more staff (so more time available for each shipment) plus paying that staff enough that they give a fuck about their job.

Can i pay more for decent service? Can’t i even have the choice for an extra fee? No! It’s just another race to the bottom that our current economic system incentivizes. (See also the loss of many well-made, truly durable goods, where the market competitors are not competing on quality but on making the cheapest and quick-to-wear-out version of a product and no one making a better version remains.)
posted by D.C. at 12:38 PM on January 26, 2019 [8 favorites]


There's an Amazon fulfillment facility being built about 10 miles from where I live. I wonder if pallets will be available locally after it opens. It seems like it could be an amusing thing to do once in a while, buy a pallet of returns.

I've also thought once in a while about bidding at a storage unit auction. Never done that, though.
posted by hippybear at 12:41 PM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yeah, depending on what mood I'm in on a given day I often feel like we need to tear everything down and start fresh. Maybe just get rid of humans entirely, maybe give octopus a chance. Depending on how broad a view you choose to take, a complete apocalypse may come to seem both inevitable and desirable, let alone an economic restructuring.

Given that that's not on the table though, doing this seems better than not doing it. There are plenty of valid criticisms of Amazon, but is "sometimes they auction off the returns rather than just landfilling them" really one of them?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:56 PM on January 26, 2019 [7 favorites]


I confess, I am a Surplus Auction Junkie. Have been for near 40 years now. I've bought just about everything you can imagine except maybe live animals. I used to specialize in IBM Selectric typewriters back in the day, the ones with the ball. I could pick them up usually for about $30-$45 for a pallet of fifteen or twenty. Usually make ten of them work and sell them to lawyers and title companies that had to make multiple copies using carbon paper. I was minting money until the Government got involved with the resolution trust act and started shutting down all the banks. All of a sudden there were these huge auctions and bankers and lawyers were showing up paying what they thought was a good price because they were used to paying retail. The margins on used typewriter market soon went away. I bought a crashed mosquito control helicopter at a county auction. No one else seemed to notice the wooden crate next to it with a brand new engine in it. That was a very good day! I've bought art by the wall full, and every office chair inside a five story building for eight dollars each, sight unseen. That was fun as I made a deal with an office supply company to come get them for three times what I had paid. They paid me before I had to pay the auctioneer and they hauled them away. I was just the middle man. I remember buying all the napkin dispensers and boxes of wax paper for hamburger patties from a closed Farell's ice cream shop when I was still in high school, I went door to door to all the diners in town selling them out of the trunk of my Plymouth Scamp.
But in reality, not everything is a home run. There are sealed bid auctions that the county or state or city will run. I'm not proud to say that I was the only person to bid a positive number on 150 metal desks back in 1984. Previous to me everyone had charged to haul them off. My bid was only $2.00 per unit, and at first I was thrilled. 150 of anything is a lot, 150 metal desks is a mountain! 6 tractor trailer loads and 2 forklift rentals later I had them all moved to a friends warehouse. It took me 7 months to sell half and then I paid someone to haul the rest off. Lesson learned. The key is in realizing what stuff is REALLY worth. Who knew in 1984 metal desks were worth negative dollars? I've also learned to never buy anything next to a doorway, as it will be ruined by everyone trying to get their stuff passed it.
Now I try to stick to small expensive things that are easy to ship and store. Thanks to companies like Govdeals.com, Liquidation.com, and Joesph Finn Auctioneers most auctions I don't even have to travel to. It can all be done from a laptop. It's easy to buy stuff cheap but if there is no market you are hosed. Sometimes you have to be creative and make your own market. The art I bought I ended up hanging in several restaurants and splitting the sale fifty fifty. I didn't have to store nor sell it, they did the work.
The Colleges and Governments are by far the best, they get rid of quality stuff all the time, sometimes just for budget reasons. I spent a year buying surplus office supplies from one college campus and selling it to teachers at the same university on a different campus.
Departments were getting rid of perfectly good stuff and buying new because they were scared they would lose their budget dollars in the future. Although they did get a little smarter in the end. They would sell a pallet of junk computers with one really good one on top. That way they didn't have to haul the junk ones to the landfill. That burden was transferred to the lucky buyer. LOL
One time I was trying to buy sound gear, speakers and lighting from a defunct amusement park outside of Orlando. ( Boardwalk & Baseball, previously Circus World) It was a pretty big auction with lots of attendees. But for the stuff I wanted it seemed like their were only two of us who were really active, and I kept coming in second. I couldn't see the opposing bidder on the other side of the crowd. It's always good to see who you are competing with at a live auction. I mosey on over to see if I know them and low and behold I'm bidding against three guys in Navy uniforms. They are outbidding me with my own tax dollars! How is this even fair? Part of me was happy that they were buying used and spending my money wisely, but another part was really pissed as they surely had a bigger purse than I did. Luckily they were employees of the government and took their mandatory lunch break. ( auctions don't stop for lunch or dinner ) So I manged to clean up while they ate their burgers. Although it's not an auction, lately I've found that scouring Face Book Market place is a great way to find deals, it's amazing what some folks who are no longer attached will get rid of something for. Tools and old jeans, sneakers, and anything made by Patagonia is usually a great way to turn a few dollars into a few more.
posted by HappyHippo at 12:57 PM on January 26, 2019 [59 favorites]


My parents used to get a lot of mystery boxes at suctions when I was growing up.ost of them turned out to be dishes and books. It was always fun opening and digging through them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:50 PM on January 26, 2019


So Amazon, and this wonderful economy are training us to pick through the 21st century version of a landfill to search for scraps to sell to make ends meet. Don’t worry! If there’s any money in it at all, someone will figure out how to remove the inefficiency (read: profit for anyone not the entrepreneur) from the system, and will either automate the whole process, or at the very least, make sure that anyone working under them to generate profit barely earns enough to make ends meet.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:29 PM on January 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


There aren't any economies which don't have these mechanisms, are there? Making sure that fair labor laws are mandated here definitely seems the way to go rather than sneering and making this into some sort of New Untouchables Caste labor category.
posted by XMLicious at 8:17 PM on January 26, 2019 [3 favorites]


I didn’t mean to sneer at anyone or anything other than amazon and the economic culture that has taken the idea of full time employment that allows for a prosperous population and turned it into bullshit like this, where no one can afford to only work one full time job anymore, and side hustles and gigs are the norm. Normalizing pawing through refuse as a viable way of getting ahead is pretty damn bleak, no matter how strong an economy is.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:51 PM on January 26, 2019




I didn’t mean to sneer at anyone or anything other than amazon and the economic culture that has taken the idea of full time employment that allows for a prosperous population and turned it into bullshit like this, where no one can afford to only work one full time job anymore, and side hustles and gigs are the norm. Normalizing pawing through refuse as a viable way of getting ahead is pretty damn bleak, no matter how strong an economy is.


If this is really your take, you've lived a way too sheltered life. Look, I get we all hate Amazon for reasons. But I swear, those reasons almost always smack of a bubble where indignation and outrage can be indulged for maximum personal satisfaction. Of all the things Amazon gets thrown in an attempt to skewer, this is weak sauce. But yeah, something something kaptializm, amirite?

I'm looking at this, and I don't see this being a problem that needs to be solved. At least not by us. Because it is being solved. By parties who should and want to solve it.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:16 PM on January 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


I’m not sure where your idea of how sheltered my life is matters when I’m talking about wage stagnation and the death of industries that used to provide a living wage, but no longer do because someone came along and “disrupted” things, or other tech bro bullshit. Feel free to champion amazon and their race to the bottom, with meager wages paid for back breaking labor tracked to the second so that workers piss in bottles rather than take a minute to go to the bathroom.

No, amazon isn’t the only one, but the article is discussing an industry that’s grown, remora-like on the castoffs of the behemoth that does pretty much whatever it wants, whenever it wants.

The idea that I’m working from, as naive and sheltered as it might be, is that human labor isn’t, and shouldn’t be seen as the inefficiency to be eliminated, not in any decent society. Full time labor should bring with it the ability to earn a living wage, without having to have two or three side gigs to make ends meet along with living in a house full of strangers because rents are too high. Then again, we’re pretty far gone from the idea of our society being decent any longer.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:09 PM on January 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


I've bought just about everything you can imagine except maybe live animals.

Maybe?

Is there a story there?
posted by Grangousier at 3:01 AM on January 27, 2019


Yeah, I’d like another HappyHippo story, please.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 7:56 AM on January 27, 2019 [4 favorites]


I’m not sure where your idea of how sheltered my life is matters when I’m talking about wage stagnation and the death of industries that used to provide a living wage, but no longer do because someone came along and “disrupted” things, or other tech bro bullshit. Feel free to champion amazon and their race to the bottom, with meager wages paid for back breaking labor tracked to the second so that workers piss in bottles rather than take a minute to go to the bathroom.

No, amazon isn’t the only one, but the article is discussing an industry that’s grown, remora-like on the castoffs of the behemoth that does pretty much whatever it wants, whenever it wants.

The idea that I’m working from, as naive and sheltered as it might be, is that human labor isn’t, and shouldn’t be seen as the inefficiency to be eliminated, not in any decent society. Full time labor should bring with it the ability to earn a living wage, without having to have two or three side gigs to make ends meet along with living in a house full of strangers because rents are too high. Then again, we’re pretty far gone from the idea of our society being decent any longer.


Nice rant, but misplaced. Which is part of my point. A springboard to wag the finger at Amazon, for an industry that predates Amazon, even internet commerce.

As far as human labor is concerned, it absolutely should be seen as an inefficiency. When it is inefficient. How many of us wear clothing made from hand woven cloth? Virtually every convenience and advance of quality of life relies on the realization that inefficient human labor practice needs to be improved or eliminated. For cost. And quality. Often both. Full time labor should earn a living wage. The problem is that all labor is not equal. It has to offer sufficient value to someone in order to warrant a living wage. You can labor as hard as you want doing something that nobody really wants done. You'll likely be compensated in kind. Paradoxically, some of the most highly valued labor isn't all that laborious at all. Reality is weird that way.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:30 PM on January 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


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