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'Serial returners': How COVID and free shipping made over-buying the new norm

Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

But it's also a story about the way consumers now use e-commerce to hedge their bets.

Many holiday shoppers, fearful of supply chain shortages, intentionally overbought rather than risk not having gifts in time, according to an Oracle Retail survey. That has all but locked in higher returns this season. "Everyone that bought online this year expects to return at least three things," said Chris McDonald, UPS' Seattle-area business development manager, citing industry data.

But even before the holidays, consumers were sending back e-commerce purchases two to three times as often as in-person purchases, industry data shows. That's partly because online purchases are more likely to not fit or otherwise satisfy shoppers.

But it's also because some retailers have made online returns so painless that consumers see overbuying as a perfectly acceptable way of sampling products.

On top of free or nearly free shipping, many bigger retailers have contracts with UPS and FedEx and others to repackage customers' returns.

Roger Low, who owns the Interbay UPS Store, says many customers arrive with returns in plastic bags or nothing; last week someone dropped off a shirt, which a staffer dutifully folded, packaged and placed in a bin.

 

Incentives like these have led to certain excesses. After last summer's heat wave, Seattle-area shoppers returned "close to 30" air conditioners to the Interbay store alone, Low says. Shoppers have also tried to send back fully assembled e-bikes, sales of which soared in the pandemic. "The driver will show up and there's just, like, 'Here's a bike, you need to take this bike,'" UPS' McDonald said.

But mainly, easy returns have encouraged what retail analysts call "bracketing" — that is, buying multiples of an item in different sizes or styles and returning what doesn't work.

Bracketing was a thing well before COVID, but it seems to have jumped during the pandemic, as shoppers avoid the risk of in-person shopping. Low routinely sees customers sending back multiples of the same bathing suits, for example, or "six pairs of baby shoes in different colors or sizes."

Whether supercharged returns outlast the pandemic isn't clear. If shoppers love the convenience, those convenience providers have mixed feelings.

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