Undersized funeral urns, cursed tarot cards and lightly used bidets, oh my. The e-commerce boom has produced an unprecedented mountain of returns, some stranger than others.
During the lunch rush at a Kohl’s store in Orlando, Florida, last month, a man loaded down by two big cardboard boxes trudged to the Amazon returns desk. He had 51 auto parts for a Corvette he was fixing up and detailing in his spare time. He no longer needed any of them.
“I think I had enough to open a specialty shop on my own,” said the Kohl’s worker who rang up the return and asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. Kohl’s stores started accepting Amazon returns three years ago, and each item had its own individual return code. That meant the line grew to more than a dozen people during the 30 minutes it took to ring them up.
It wasn’t the only weird Amazon return that the cashier has witnessed over the last three years at Kohl’s. Other customers have dragged in lawn mowers, tires, mattresses, gallons of motor oil and even a used bidet. Plenty of tourists return strollers, car seats and wheelchairs, too, presumably after they served their purpose at DisneyWorld. “That practice doesn’t sit well with me at all,” the Kohl’s employee said. “It’s like taking advantage of the system.”
Online sales in the U.S. surged 14% last year to a record $871 billion. It’s never been easier to buy just about anything online, including the things that are difficult to buy in person for one reason or another. Is it heavy? You won’t have to carry it. Not sure it will fit? Buy several sizes. Embarrassed to buy it in person? No need to confront a sales clerk.
However, online purchases are much more likely to be returned than items bought in a store, with one in five e-commerce orders sent back last year, according to the National Retail Federation. That includes plenty of strange things, inviting an awkward social encounter with the poor employee handling your return who might be silently judging you.
Can you blame them? Other Kohl’s workers say they’ve received used vacuums with dust, hair and other debris still inside. Another came in with an urn they’d tried to use, but it turned out it wasn’t big enough to fit the ashes. One customer came in to return a set of tarot cards they said were cursed. A mom wanted to return three boxes of pop tarts that her son bought at a whopping $13.99 apiece.
The mountain of returns going back to Amazon alone is enormous, and it’s a headache born largely by a handful of companies that process them, like Kohl’s, UPS and Whole Foods. Kohl’s accepts Amazon returns at all of its 1,100 stores — no box or label required — in an effort to draw foot traffic and boost sales. In 2020 alone, it said the Amazon partnership drew two million people into its stores. It didn’t say how many of them purchased something while there, only that the partnership had been accretive to sales. Kohl’s gives each person making an Amazon return a coupon to use in the store.
“Even if some small percent — 5% or 10% of people — saw something on their way to the return desk and decided to buy it, that’s incremental,” said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester. “They are getting people they wouldn’t have had and sales they wouldn’t have had. Net net, it’s probably a positive for them.”
For UPS, Amazon is its single-largest customer, generating nearly 12% of its $97 billion in revenue last year. It takes items that are returned at its stores, batches them with other items and then ships them back to Amazon.
Jorge, a 25-year-old employee at a UPS store, has gotten used to seeing customers come in with goofy gag gifts like horse masks, prank items like fake cigarettes and nerdy toys. Even a katana sword made from Japanese steel didn’t bother him. But one time he had a customer lay a black airsoft gun on the counter. Without the orange tip at the end, it looked like a real firearm. That scared him. The customer was, in fact, returning it because it looked too real and he didn’t want his kid playing with it. “I couldn’t believe it. It could have given someone genuine PTSD,” said Jorge.
Sometimes there isn’t enough physical room for all the returns. At one Whole Foods store, a customer service supervisor said they had to physically break items in order to fit them into boxes. A hoola hoop was once snapped in half. A full-size lamp was also deliberately broken. Other bulky items, like a carpet steamer, king-size comforter set and children’s battery-operated car, took up precious space at the customer service desk.
The lines can also build quickly. Fewer than half of customers seem to know what they’re doing when they come in with a return, said Jorge, the UPS worker. Some customers assume the return process will be the same each time, but it can differ depending on the size of the item or the third-party seller. Sometimes Jorge says he has to tell customers that they need to box the item or print a label, then offers to do it for a fee. They accuse him of nickel and diming them. Some have yelled or cursed at him before leaving.
“As nice as we want to be, it can be really stressful when something that should be a 10-second return turns into a five-minute ordeal,” he said.