What Happens When You Return Something

In some locations in this country, you’ll find places which deal specifically with reselling items that have been returned to giant marketplaces like Amazon. There are all sorts of iterations of this business strategy. Some will sell the items at a discounted price, but still operate like a standard store, others use auctions to try and get the best price they can on their items. There’s a small franchise in South Carolina my family likes to go to where you can sift through giant bins of random items that have been return to online marketplaces and, depending on the day of the week you’re visiting, pay anywhere from $1-$5 for whatever you find. It’s like an exciting little treasure hunt where you dig through piles and piles of absolute (and sometimes literal) rubbish, hoping to find something cool.

Something about this idea of reselling items that have been returned feels like the pinnacle of what capitalism and consumerism can mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the treasure hunt. I’ve been known to peruse the shelves of thrift stores and yard sales to try and find something someone else has discarded which just so happens to be exactly the type of thing I’ve been looking for. And I enjoyed sifting through the bins of returned items just as much, even if the whole process of digging through them while elbow to elbow with other treasure hunters while trying to keep my kids from running absolutely rampant throughout the warehouse was frustrating at best. It was fun. A weird little form of entertainment. Based around shopping. It only works around the idea that you can get a deal that you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere for something you probably don’t even need or would have considered wanting prior to finding it hiding in the piles and piles of junk. Sure, I may have only had to pay $2 for the smart plugs I found, but just the idea that I would spend an hour digging through bins hoping to find a good deal, well, it seems to speak a bit to the materialism of our age, and probably not in a good way.

But at the same time, a portion of this seems to speak tons about the throwaway culture we have in our country.

I’m not blaming the people who are returning stuff to Amazon or the other marketplaces which serve to fill these shelves of these new types of stores. Sure, there were definitely enough things within the piles I dug through to show that people are abusing the system by either using things before returning them, or by returning completely empty boxes, but those felt like the exceptions. Most of these items were purely things people decided didn’t suit their needs, or were somehow less than pristine for being purchased new.

But I do struggle with the fact that these online marketplaces basically treat all of these returns as garbage. These were things they sold on their own storefront, the smart plugs I purchased were still in a sealed package. Yet, they were throw into an enormous box with all of the other returns, to be liquidated as one big pile of junk that some treasure hunter will put down money for, hoping to score big, and probably throw nearly half of it away. If you start digging into the culture of the online returns liquidation process, you find that you can purchase pallets of Amazon returns for a fraction of the estimated worth of the items. There are countless unboxing videos of people online showing them getting brand new televisions and computers and all sorts of items still in sealed packages that are placed on these pallets along with toilet paper rolls and empty boxes.

Amazon is off loading computers with toilet paper simply because it’s more effort for them to try to sell a possibly used item than it is for them to just put everything in a big box and sell it as a bundle. Heck, Amazon doesn’t even have a quality check on their return policies, or at the very least it appears to be rather lax, considering how many of these laptops and gaming consoles and other expensive things end up in the return bins, but are actually empty boxes where someone obviously returned an empty box so they could get their item for free.

The worst part of it all is that the math obviously works in Amazon’s favor. If you have all of the absolutely random crap that Amazon does, like a cardboard cutout of Pope Francis, a lot of that stuff is probably pretty hard to offload if you mark it as being used. It’s probably hard enough to sell as new. But Amazon doesn’t charge restocking fees, they just have these enormous piles of crap that, well, if they put cardboard cutouts in a box with the possible promise of a treasure like a laptop, they can actually probably make more of a profit off of their returns than they would have if they had tried selling them.

Which means our consumerist and capitalist tendencies have put us in this place where we are literally willing to buy a pile of absolute garbage with the hope that something good is hiding inside.

And so, this past weekend, my wife and I bid on a couple of pallets in an online auction, and ended up with an enormous pile of sporting goods now sitting in our garage waiting for something to be done with it. And you know what? If we actually put the time in on selling these things, we should be able to make our money back, and then some, while also pocketing a few choice items for ourselves.

I guess, at the very least, we can live happy knowing that we’re doing at least a little bit to try to keep some of this stuff out of the landfill. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking we’ve somehow become a part of a problem that our country has with stuff.


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