Eco-tip: If you can’t keep a gift, at least keep it out of the landfill
David Goldstein, Special to Ventura County Star Published 4:38 p.m. PT Jan. 11, 2020
“Everybody liquidates,” says the tab heading on the web page of B-Stock Solutions, a Northern California-based company selling business software, systems and auction services to retailers for management of retail returns.
Comparing retail returns to advice one might give a toilet-training toddler may be more appropriate than it seems at first, given both processes often result in messes and waste.
How much waste? A recent article in MarketWatch, an online personal finance magazine, had the following alarming subheading: “About 5 billion pounds of returned merchandise ends up in landfills every year.” This wave of waste comes despite the sophisticated system of retail return management provided by B-Stock, Optoro and other companies helping retailers.
In an email reply to an inquiry about this calculation of discards, Carly Llewellyn, vice president of marketing for Optoro, translated the problem into dollars: Retail sales, minus food and auto, in the U.S. are nearing $4 trillion a year, and the National Retail Federation estimates 10% to 11% of all goods sold are returned. With the rise of ecommerce, Optoro anticipates the total amount of returns will continue to climb, since online shopping has a much higher return rate, 20% to 30%.
Llewellyn emailed tips on how to keep these returns from becoming waste:
“Consumers should consider making their returns quickly and ensuring the item is in optimal condition with its original packaging. The longer a customer waits to return an item, the more it will depreciate in value or lose seasonality, making it harder to be resold and more likely it could end up in a landfill. Condition is also important — if possible, consumers should leave an item sealed in its original packaging and unused. This increases the likelihood it can return to a shelf at the original retailer.”
Complying with return policies is also crucial, noted Melissa Gieringer, a corporate communications staff member for B-Stock. For example, some retailers specify shoes cannot be returned if they are worn outside. However, she clarified, most returned merchandise “will not go back on primary shelves.”
Instead, return management companies operate business-to-business online auction marketplaces for retailers and manufacturers to sell returned and excess inventory to secondary-market business buyers.
Locally, one of the largest of these secondary market buyers is Bulldog Inc., which holds auctions and operates retail stores in Simi Valley and Camarillo. Bulldog offers clothing, appliances, electronics, lighting, bedding, beauty products and other items, claiming 40% to 80% off normal retail prices. After preview opportunities, auction items are sold “as is,” but retail items can be exchanged or returned for store credit.
A look at retailers’ return policies
In the Marketwatch article raising alarms about the volume of landfilled returns, personal finance reporter Leslie Albrecht noted many retailers alter return policies during the holiday season. These retailers’ websites provide additional details:
- Walmart extended return deadlines for items purchased between Oct. 24 and Dec. 25. Items with a 14-day return window were given until Jan. 10, and items with a 30-day window have until Jan. 25. Items with 90-day deadlines are unchanged.
- For Amazon, until Jan. 31, return shipping is free for eligible items weighing less than 50 pounds, provided the original item was shipped by Amazon.com between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
- Target usually limits its return period to 90 days, but allows a one-year deadline for Target-owned brands. Allowing such a long period hampers direct restocking opportunities, but Aryn Ridge, communications manager for Target, replied to an inquiry by emailing, “If we’re unable to sell an item, we work with various partners to re-use, salvage or properly dispose of it.”
- For Best Buy, Albrecht says the company website states that almost every purchase made throughout November and December can be returned through Jan. 14. She cautions that the policy doesn’t apply to cellphones or major appliances, and some customers will be charged restocking fees for opened items.
- At TJ Maxx, items purchased between Oct. 13 and Dec. 24 can be returned through Jan. 25.
- Macy’s website lists a 180 day return policy and even accepts items without proof of purchase, providing store credit at the lowest selling price within 180 days.
- Smaller local retailers, including Rains Department Store in Ojai and Bob Kildee Clothing in Camarillo, do not have sufficient volume to work with secondary-market auctioneers. Instead, Jeff Rains and Kevin Kildee, scions of their family businesses, told me they work carefully with customers to ensure purchases are made well the first time. Both have policies to accept returns only with tags and packaging intact, but both make exceptions. Both stores donate functional returned items to thrift stores if they are no longer suitable for retail display.
Eco-Tip is written by David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst for the Ventura County Public Works Agency. He can be reached at 658-4312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.