Cartoon by Dave Granlund

5 Big Questions About Online Shopping

Online shopping is booming. But millions of the products we buy online will end up being returned. Here’s what you need to know. 

1. How popular is online shopping?

It’s more popular than ever before! Experts expect Americans to spend more than $1 trillion buying products online this year. (That’s $1,000,000,000,000!)

The ease of shopping with a few clicks has led more people to purchase items online. In addition, many companies offer fast, free shipping. 

Online sales took off during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many stores shut down. 

2. How has the spike in online shopping affected returns? 

More online shopping means more returns. If you can’t try out or try on an item in person, you’re more likely to end up with something you don’t really want. Experts estimate that shoppers return about 25 percent of what they buy online. They return about 8 percent of what they buy in stores.

Returning online orders has gotten easier. Many online retailers don’t charge customers for sending back unwanted goods. But many returned items never go back on sale. Instead, they’re often thrown out, even if they’re still brand-new.

STORYPLUS/Getty Images

Nearly 6 billion pounds of returned items end up in landfills each year.

(Source: Optoro)

3. Why don’t companies resell all the returned products instead of throwing some of them away? 

When you send back a product, the company already owes you a refund. It costs the company even more to ship the item to a warehouse so workers can determine if it can be sold again.

“Every person that touches that item is adding cost, but the company doesn’t earn any value,” explains Gad Allon. He’s a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Because of those extra costs, Allon says, most brand-new items that get returned are never sold again as new.

4. Do any of the returned items get resold?

 It’s unlikely that the original retailer will sell them again as new. But some items do get a second life. For example, many items returned to giant retailers like Amazon end up being sold again at discount stores. 

Retailers deal with an especially huge amount of returned clothing. That’s partly because many shoppers buy clothes or footwear in multiple sizes or colors. They pick the items that look and fit best, then return the rest. 

“Because it’s so easy to return, we definitely over-buy,” Allon explains. 

5. What can we do to address the problem?

58% of people have bought multiple sizes or colors when shopping online.

(Source: Narvar)

This practice is known as bracketing.

If you want to make a difference, return items to a store rather than mailing them back. Experts say those products are more likely to go back on a shelf. 

In some cases, retailers tell buyers to keep unwanted items rather than send them back. Donating those goods to charity can keep them from going unused.

Even better, Allon says, is to stop and think before shopping online. If we buy only products that we really need or want, we’ll be much less likely to return them.

“Everything boils down to us as consumers at the end,” he says.

  1. In the answer to question 1, why does the author put the word trillion in italics? 
  2. What details do you notice in the cartoon? What message do you think the cartoonist is sending?
  3. Why do online retailers often decide to throw away returned products?
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