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The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants

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The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants

What happens to the stuff you order online after you send it back?

The Atlantic,

5 min read
4 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Shopping from home is so convenient! But product returns are a nightmare — for businesses and for the planet.

Editorial Rating



  • Eye Opening
  • Overview
  • Concrete Examples


Few businesspeople care to discuss – and consumers rarely give a second thought to – the economic and environmental costs of product returns. Writing in The Atlantic, Amanda Mull explains how the “free shipping, free returns” model of online commerce enables customer overbuying, resulting in a glut of returned merchandise and logistical burdens on businesses. Retailers discard or destroy up to 25% of returns rather than restock, resell or donate them.


Online retailers have trained consumers to expect free, painless returns — leading to a glut of returned goods, especially clothing.

COVID restrictions gave online shopping a huge boost. In 2020, as much as half of all clothing purchases took place on the web. The competition for customers’ business online led to a widespread practice of offering free shipping for returns, and — no surprise — consumers take full advantage. Instead of the typical in-store return rate of less than 10%, online retailers see returns of 15% to 30%. That rate is even higher for clothing because customers often “bracket” their purchases – ordering a range of sizes – while intending to keep only what fits.

Consumers now expect “free shipping, free no-hassle returns.” Businesses give credit or blame to the online shoe retailer Zappos for its early high-profile promotion of this policy, and consumers often balk at buying from businesses that ask them to pay return shipping costs. Mega-companies such as Amazon, Target and Walmart have the logistical resources and profit margins to manage the burden of high return rates; smaller companies often do not.

“Reverse logistics” ...

About the Author

The Atlantic staff writer Amanda Mull frequently reports on consumer behavior and business trends.

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