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The Rhythm Method: How To Get Better About Returning Stuff You Buy

The internet is your inventory.

Sharrona Pearl

If you’re reading a nice article about shopping online here, a web site about money and shopping online, it is my guess that you probably shop online.

While many-to-most Americans already do some shopping online, the safety and convenience advantages during the pandemic have been obvious for more people—ecommerce grew like 30% in 2020. (Although, interestingly, the 2020 totals from the U.S. Department of Commerce show that less that 1/5th of all retail shopping happens online, so while ecommerce is growing it hasn’t taken over everything yet.)

I’m not here to persuade you to shop more. And I’m not here to persuade you to shop more online. Or shop less. Do what you want!

I am here to suggest that you probably aren’t returning as many purchases as you should. Then I am going to yell at you about this! (Not really. Maybe a little.)

My Returns Rhythm Method is simple:

  • Use shopping carts as your staging area.
  • Buy multiple items at once.
  • Return what you don't want immediately, before you order more.
  • Return everything at once!
  • Repeat.

Oh, but wait, you want to be yelled at? Great! Let's go.

The Nineteen SacredTruths of Online Returns

1. You can return almost anything

Let’s say you’re one of those people or families who have a regular cadence of online orders. Ignoring groceries for a moment, you might even have household items shipped to you automatically. (Amazon and other retailers love a recurring order, which is why they give you a little discount for setting it up.)

It’s incredibly unlikely you’re going to return, say, toilet paper. It’s more likely that you’re going to go into your subscription and cancel or pause it for a while.

But you could. You could return the toilet paper. Just think about that for a minute. You bought too much of something and all you would need to turn it back into money is to return it. This seems obvious but maybe it’s not. Almost every single thing you can buy online can be returned. And the only cost is usually your time. (Which isn’t without value, of course. More on that in a second.)

2. You’re buying too often

If you’re on the receiving end of an endless stream of packages—eternal Christmas!—it’s going to be difficult to remember what you end up liking, what you don’t, and what should be returned. Slow down. At least slow down enough that you actually take a minute to try on that shirt, plug in that gadget and set it up. Play with your toys! Enjoy that New Thing Feeling. That feeling is free, even if you return the item.

3. Shopping carts are staging areas

You have some money. You want a thing. You might even need a thing. Great. Add it to your cart.

Then wait.

If you enjoy the shopping process, you get a fair amount of pleasure just clicking that “Add to cart” button. But waiting for a couple of days does a few things:

  • Your needs or desires may change. Remove from cart!
  • You may find a better product or price. Remove from cart! Add to cart!
  • Direct-to-consumer sites may send you a coupon to get you to finish the order. (If you’ve at least given them your email address.)
  • All your orders from big retailers like Amazon, Target, and Wal-Mart will arrive at the same time. (Usually.)

One household I know only orders from Amazon every other week, for example. They add things during that two week period as a sort of shopping list, then when it reaches as threshold—usually “Okay, I actually really need one of the things on this list as soon as possible—they clean up their cart and make the order.

I like to think of online shopping carts as my closet. Maybe I’ll need to get that one strange accessory to complete a project, but until I’m absolutely sure I need it, I leave it in my cart online. It’s not that minimalism is my goal, exactly, but that I don’t want to turn my money into stuff that’s just going to sit on a shelf unused. Getting into the habit of not clicking “Buy now” but instead “Add to cart” has saved me a lot of money, but also time. I don’t have to return something I end up not buying!

4. The best time to return something is immediately after you touch it

Just like unpacking the groceries, if you get a big order from a retailer, unpack it all as soon as you get it. Feel free to separate anything you think you don’t want into another pile immediately! Then after you get everything unpacked, go log in to the retailer’s site, start a return, and print any labels or gather up any QR return codes and put them somewhere easy: your email, Dropbox or iCloud, that sort of thing.

5. Retailers want you to return things

For a smaller shop or independent store, a return is Not Great For Business. They’re out their time. They’re out shipping costs, potentially. And when the item comes back, they usually can’t sell it as new again. (One-off things like art or clothing might be different.) I’m not saying you shouldn’t return something you end up not liking just because it is from a small business or an individual, but just maybe you should be a little less cavalier.

That said, the big retailers absolutely do not care one bit if you return something. Being generous about returns isn’t a novel tactic for building trust with shoppers—Walmart used to be notorious for taking almost anything back, sometimes even things they didn’t sell!—but the online retailers have generally followed Amazon’s lead over the years. Amazon in particular has multiple ways you can return things (shipping, dropping off at Kohl’s or a UPS store), and they rarely if ever challenge you for a reason why beyond “I didn’t like it.”

In fact, Amazon is basically building new services like Amazon Wardrobe around the model of shipping back what you don’t want. Amazon’s model is almost always around the idea that shipping something back to them should be as easy as buying something, because they’d rather you spend $100 with them and return $50 worth of stuff than not spend the $100 with them in the first place. Is that model good for retail in general? Honestly, I’m not sure—it certainly is a strategy to “remove friction” from the buying process, which of course leads to more consumption—but I know that it makes it less risky to try something out for individuals. And it also pushes other big retailers to come up with better ways for consumers to get the most for their money, which seems broadly like a good thing.

6-19. You only get to turn your stuff back into money once

Sure, there’s eBay and Facebook Marketplace and garage sales. But that’s for clearing out old stuff, typically. And you’ll rarely get back more money than you paid for an item new.

You should always return something if you can. Do it as soon as you can. You usually only have 14 to 30 days to do it. (In fact, you should check on the return policy before you buy something, even if you buy it online.)

It’s your money. And if you look around your house or apartment right now I bet you can spot at least a couple of things that, given a magic wand that transmutes stuff back into money, you’d be whacking with the Regretful Purchase Stick. Returns are that magic wand!

Most importantly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Returning stuff can make some people feel ill. Some of it is inertia: once you have the item, it can feel easier to just keep it. Some of it is guilt: trying something out feels just like taking advantage of someone. Some of it is confusion: people just don’t know what to do. And some of it is plain old laziness: organizing a return feels like more work than it’s worth.

It’s worth it. Returns put money right back in your wallet. Usually the full price! It reduces clutter and waste. And almost every single item that gets returned eventually gets sold again by the retailer, either to a new customer or to a wholesaler. While there are plenty of examples of irresponsible companies throwing perfectly good items in the garbage, there are entire industries that exist to optimize the post-sale retail supply chain. Obviously, it depends on the product itself, but there’s a decent argument to be made that returning something you don’t like is better for the planet (especially if you ignore the impact of being shipped twice), because the item is either going to go back to someone who really wants it or—if a lot of people return the same thing—lead the manufacturer to improve it.

And it really is easy to return most things. Easier than you think, probably. (Unless you live out in the boonies, of course.)

For example, here’s what I did to return this adorable wrap dress I bought from Amazon while dreaming of better weather. Turns out the fit just wasn’t perfect for me. (Though maybe it will work better on you!)

  1. I went to the Amazon homepage and logged in.
  1. I Clicked “returns and orders” on the top right hand corner.  
  1. I scrolled down my recent order until I found the dress I needed to return.
  1. I clicked “return or replace items.”  
  1. I chose to return it and have the money returned to my credit card.  You may opt to take the refund as Amazon credit; that’s slightly quicker, but ties you to the website.  (Not a huge risk for me and Amazon.)
  1. I decided to bring it back to the Amazon Hub Locker near my house and went for the “no packaging option.” That means all I had to do was bring my item and the QR return code that Amazon sent me. I took a nice walk, dropped it off, and enjoyed a virtuous glow about the money I did not waste.

Then I bought this lovely summer dress instead.

Sharrona Pearl is Associate Professor medical ethics at Drexel University.  You can find her writing at Real Life Mag, Tablet Mag, The Washington Post, Lilith Magazine, and Aeon, as well as other places.  Say hi on twitter @sharronapearl or check her out her work at Photo by Karolina Grabowska.