Returning something strange you bought online? The employee is judging you.
Undersized cremation urns, cursed tarot cards and lightly used bidets, oh my. The e-commerce boom has produced an unprecedented mountain of returns, some weirder than others.
During the lunch rush at a Kohl’s store in Orlando, Florida last month, a man carrying two large cardboard boxes drove to Amazon’s returns office. He had 51 auto parts for a Corvette that he repaired and detailed in his spare time. He didn’t need any of them anymore.
“I think I had enough to open a specialty shop on my own,” said the Kohl’s worker who phoned back and asked not to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media. . Kohl stores began accepting Amazon returns three years ago, and each item had its own individual return code. This means the queue grew to over a dozen people in the 30 minutes it took to call them.
That wasn’t the only strange Amazon comeback the cashier has witnessed in the past three years at Kohl’s. Other customers dragged lawn mowers, tires, mattresses, gallons of motor oil and even a used bidet. Many tourists also bring back strollers, car seats, and wheelchairs, presumably after completing their mission at DisneyWorld. “This practice does not sit well with me at all,” the Kohl employee said. “It’s like taking advantage of the system.”
U.S. online sales jumped 14% last year to a record $871 billion. It’s never been easier to buy just about anything online, including things that are hard to buy in person for one reason or another. Is it heavy? You won’t have to wear it. Not sure it will fit? Buy multiple sizes. Embarrassed to buy it in person? No need to confront a salesperson.
However, online purchases are far more likely to be returned than items purchased in-store, with one in five e-commerce orders returned last year, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes a lot of weird things, inviting an awkward social encounter with the poor employee handling your return who might silently judge you.
Can you blame them? Other Kohl employees say they received used vacuum cleaners with dust, hair and other debris still inside. Another came with an urn that they had tried to use, but found it wasn’t big enough to hold the ashes. A customer came to return a deck of tarot cards which he claimed were cursed. A mother wanted to return three boxes of pop pies that her son had bought for the low price of $13.99 each.
The mountain of returns going back to Amazon alone is enormous, and it’s a headache largely born out of a handful of companies processing them, like Kohl’s, UPS and Whole Foods. Kohl’s accepts returns from Amazon at all of its 1,100 stores — no box or tag required — in a bid to attract foot traffic and boost sales. In 2020 alone, he said the partnership with Amazon brought two million people to his stores. He did not say how many of them bought anything during their stay, only that the partnership had been accretive to sales. Kohl’s is giving each person making an Amazon return a coupon to use in the store.
“Even if a small percentage — 5% or 10% of people — saw something on the way back and decided to buy it, that’s incremental,” Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali said. “They get people they wouldn’t have and sales they wouldn’t have. Net net, that’s probably a plus point for them.
For UPS, Amazon is its biggest customer, generating nearly 12% of its $97 billion in revenue last year. It takes items that are returned to its stores, bundles them with other items, and then sends them back to Amazon.
Jorge, a 25-year-old employee at a UPS store, has grown accustomed to seeing customers walk in with goofy goodies like horse masks, pranks like fake cigarettes and tacky toys. Even a Japanese steel katana sword didn’t bother him. But once he asked a customer to put a black airsoft gun on the counter. Without the orange tip at the end, it looked like a real gun. It scared him. In fact, the customer was returning it because it looked too real and he didn’t want his child to play with it. ” I could not believe it. It could have given someone real PTSD,” Jorge said.
Sometimes there is not enough physical space for all returns. At a Whole Foods store, a customer service supervisor said he had to physically break items to put them in boxes. A hoola hoop has already been broken in half. A full-size lamp was also deliberately broken. Other bulky items, like a carpet steamer, a king-size duvet set, and a battery-powered children’s car, took up valuable space at the customer service counter.
Lines can also build quickly. Less than half of customers seem to know what they’re doing when they arrive with a return, UPS employee Jorge said. Some customers assume the return process will be the same every time, but it may differ depending on the size of the item or the third-party seller. Sometimes Jorge says he needs to tell customers they need to wrap the item or print a label, then offers to do it for a fee. They accuse him of nicking and obscuring them. Some shouted or insulted him before leaving.
“As enjoyable as we wanted to be, it can be very stressful when something that should be a 10-second comeback turns into a five-minute ordeal,” he said.