From living rooms to landfills, some holiday shopping returns take a 'very sad path' It's peak season for returns, which are setting a new record. Some end up back on shelves or get resold to other merchants, and some wind up in landfills or sail overseas.

From living rooms to landfills, some holiday shopping returns take a 'very sad path'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now it's a story about the stuff you no longer want. This is prime time for returns of ill-fitting sweaters and regrettable sequin socks you might have bought on sale. NPR's Alina Selyukh explains what happens when you send them back.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: I really hope this doesn't ruin any friendships because whoever gifted Marcus Shen a self-heating coffee mug for Christmas...

MARCUS SHEN: Don't think that's something I need to have.

SELYUKH: Oof (ph). It was a nice thought.

SHEN: You can keep your coffee warm, I guess. It's like a - kind of an electric coffee mug.

SELYUKH: And you're not a coffee drinker? Or you just...

SHEN: Oh, no, I love coffee, but I usually drink it pretty quickly (laughter).

SELYUKH: Returns are Shen's professional expertise. He's the chief operating officer at B-Stock, which helps big retailers resell their returns, often to smaller stores.

SHEN: The categories that we see the most tend to be consumer electronics, certainly apparel. Home and garden and furniture seems to be a big category, too.

SELYUKH: Because that is what we've been buying in the pandemic, and a lot of it online, which is between two and five times more likely to result in a return. And now last year's record spending is producing record returns. Here's Hitendra Chaturvedi, supply chain management professor of practice at Arizona State University.

HITENDRA CHATURVEDI: As a matter of fact, we will be crossing half a trillion dollars' worth of products.

SELYUKH: That's more than the economy of Israel or Austria sent back in returns for stuff we bought last year. You've probably contributed. I know I did. Just last week, when I sent back a blanket that turned out too small for my new couch - sorry, blanket. I asked Chaturvedi about its fate. Will someone else buy it?

CHATURVEDI: Your blanket has a very high probability of being in a landfill.

SELYUKH: Yikes.

CHATURVEDI: That item is going to go to a warehouse where, if the blanket was lucky, somebody is going to inspect it to see if there is any damage to it.

SELYUKH: He says a fairly small portion of returns gets put back on shelves. Like, if I hadn't opened my blanket, it might get its package sanitized and resold like nothing happened. With opened packages and especially for cheaper products, they're often not worth the cost of shipping back plus paying someone to look at it, clean it, repair, test, reseal. That's why big stores might tell shoppers, just keep whatever it is. We'll send you a new one.

SHEN: The lower cost items - typically, it starts to get more and more relatively expensive to process from a return's perspective.

SELYUKH: Shen's company B-Stock is one of many middlemen helping retailers offload their returns. Some go to discount and outlet stores. Some to sellers on eBay or other websites. Some get donated to charity or recycled. Many U.S. returns end up sailing overseas. Chaturvedi says that's the likeliest fate of my blanket.

CHATURVEDI: And this blanket, along with other blankets and apparel, will be rolled up into a bale, just like you do a bale of hay.

SELYUKH: Except it's a bunch of returned clothes and linens sold by weight to an overseas merchant who will try to sell or maybe donate it. And if not, they'll be trashed or burned. Resale company Optoro estimates U.S. returns create almost 6 billion pounds of landfill waste every year.

CHATURVEDI: That is what consumers don't realize - the life of the return is a very, very sad path.

SELYUKH: Of course, this grim forecast is a bit of a - well, blanket statement. Stores and products vary. For example, pricier clothes are very likely to get dry-cleaned and sold again as new. Electronics often get resold as almost new but in an open box. Shen says retailers are getting smarter about their returns.

SHEN: Anecdotally, what we've heard, particularly with larger retailers, that a higher and higher percentage of that stuff is going direct to consumer, that they're trying to resell that.

SELYUKH: Technology is slowly getting better at avoiding returns in the first place, helping you buy the right size sweater or picturing a new rug inside your room. And most importantly, more shoppers are getting comfortable with buying stuff that's not exactly brand new.

SHEN: The idea of that is no longer creepy for us, right?

SELYUKH: And I can only hope that his prediction is right - that both his electric coffee mug and my blanket will be back on the shelves to find a happy owner.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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