How returnable purchases can lead to clutter

The things you buy and intend to return — but never do — are an all-too-common type of clutter. A recent research study gives some interesting insight into the psychology of return policies and provides one reason why some people wind up with those unreturned items. Somewhat unintuitively, a longer return policy can lead to fewer returns.

As Sarah Halzack wrote in The Washington Post:

Ryan Freling, who conducted the research alongside Narayan Janakiraman and Holly Syrdal, said that this is perhaps a result of what’s known as “endowment effect.”

“That would say that the longer a customer has a product in their hands, the more attached they feel to it,” Freling said.

Plus, the long time frame creates less urgency around the decision over whether or not to take it back.

“Since they don’t feel pressure to take it right back to the store, they kind of sit with it and live with it and say, ‘Well it’s not that bad,'” Freling said.

(If you’ve ever found a blouse lurking in the back of your closet with the tags on it months after you bought it, this is probably a familiar feeling.)

So if you’re not sure whether or not to keep a purchase, it might be a good idea to give yourself a decision-making deadline that comes well before the store’s return deadline if that deadline is quite far out, like 90 days. Putting the return deadline on your calendar will help you remember to make that decision and handle any returns.

For other people, the problem may simply be making the time to handle the return, especially if it involves going to a store that’s not nearby. And some people have a “returning-things” anxiety which makes any return difficult, even if the item is defective. If you know you’re not going to do the return, for whatever reason, it’s best to get rid of the item (by donating it or whatever) as soon as you determine it’s not going to work for you. Keeping it around just takes up space and reminds you of the wasted money, neither of which is helpful.

Are you curious about what happens to things you do return? If you decide to return something you bought online, there’s a good chance it goes to a liquidator, not the company you bought it from or the manufacturer. Davey Alba wrote in Wired about what she learned from one such company, Shorewood Liquidators.

Major retailers can’t resell returned items, even if they’re still brand new, says Shorewood’s Ringelsten. “You don’t know where the product went after it left your store, so you can’t put it back on your shelf.”

More to the point, people most often return things because they are defective. Retailers simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with the suppliers. “It would be very expensive for a company like Amazon to handle returns,” Ringelsten says. “They would have to sort it out — and there are a million manufacturers out there.” What’s more, he says, manufacturers usually supply items to retailers like Amazon through a contract where it’s understood that items that may be returned will simply be liquidated.

If the items can’t be sold or recycled for a profit, they simply go to landfill. About 10 percent of what Shorewood handles falls into that category. That’s a lot, but less than you might expect given that so many returns are defective items. So go ahead and do those returns, knowing that many items will be resold at bargain prices — which might help someone who could really use a bargain purchase. That’s certainly better than having the items stashed in the back of a closet, unused.

4 Comments for “How returnable purchases can lead to clutter”

  1. posted by laura m. on

    I have returned items for reason of a defect or not fitting (no time in store to try on item at the time, was rushed) within a 72 hour period. I examine item when home, leaving tags on until I know it is ok.

  2. posted by Pursuit on

    It’s amazing how being retired and living on a finite income helps reduce impulse spending and increases the initiative to return items which haven’t lived up to the promises made by the manufacturer! The biggest barrier to returning items, I suspect, is loosing the receipt. Even if the store will accept returns without one, I’ll bet having misplace it makes you uncomfortable at the prospect of approaching the store without one. I keep my credit and debit cards in a wallet large enough to hold all my receipts instead of permitting the clerk to put the receipt in a bag. Another strategy, which I don’t use but might work for others, is to take a photo of your receipts before “filing” them in that safe place which you were certain you’d remember but which seems now to have been moved by the crazy-making fairies who dwell in the attic.

  3. posted by Anya on

    That also means, though, that you can’t have a clear conscience just because you returned something. It’s not like you never bought it, in many cases it is like you bought it and threw it away.

    It’s kind of what happens with a lot of donated items – they go to the landfill because they are no longer usable. But the people donating or returning stuff feel like they are being responsible and eco-friendly because they are not the ones doing (or even witnessing) the throwing-away.

    So it’s still a hundred times better to take the time beforehand and make a really careful decision as to whether something will add value to your life or not.

    It took me a while to learn and accept that. /:

  4. posted by SkiptheBS on

    I seldom have to return anything, but recently ordered long undies which arrived a size too small. I sold them to a petite acquaintance. I’ve also sold non-returnables on eBay. You seldom recoup the full purchase price, but you get something and it eliminates clutter.

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