Amazon Returns Have Gone to Hell

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After ordering two packs of 11-inch, rope-woven storage cubes from Amazon.com recently, I found that the resulting cubes were, in fact, 11-by-10.5-by-10.5 inches. Alas, they weren’t what I expected. I elected to return both sets.

Thus began the latest of my ill-fated journeys through logistics at what strives to be “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” The system promised to be easy: First I’d set up the return within the Amazon app, then scan the QR code it gave me at a self-serve kiosk in my local (Amazon-owned) Whole Foods Market store. After that, I’d simply load my items into a proffered poly bag, print off a mailing label, and drop the package in a chute that the kiosk would unlock for me.

If only life could be so simple. Upon arrival at the Whole Foods, I discovered that I couldn’t fit both of the items I wanted to return into a single poly bag. With a line forming behind me, I panicked and decided to regroup at home, where I would begin the process over again, this time as two returns, one for each pack of not-quite-cubes. When I went back to the kiosk a few days later, I couldn’t fit even a single pack of storage cubes into a poly bag. Luckily, the cubes were still in their plasticized wrapper, so I applied the labels directly to the packaging. But then I accidentally used the same QR code for both items—a fatal error, it turned out. Didn’t this used to be much easier?

According to the National Retail Federation, one-seventh of the $5 trillion worth of retail goods sold in the United States in 2023 were returned. Online retail, which now accounts for about one-quarter of all sales, grew, in part, on this foundation. If you can’t see and touch goods that you’re about to buy, then you don’t ever really know what you’re going to get, and you might be disappointed. Free shipping and returns have helped consumers hedge that risk. But free for you doesn’t mean free for the retailers, which lose a lot of money on restocking and refurbishment. As Amanda Mull wrote for The Atlantic last year, the standard way of selling things online—with the blanket promise You can always send it back!—has become unsustainable.

“For the first time, companies are making return reductions a priority,” Jacob Feldman, an associate professor of supply chain, operations, and technology at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. Amidst their efforts to accomplish that reduction, some have tweaked their free returns to make them slightly less-than-free; others have been warning customers away from suspect purchases, or clamping down on fraud. And according to experts I spoke with, the biggest online retailers have, over time, revised, modified, and amended the logistics processes that they’re using for returns. All those small changes have started to compound. What used to be a simple system for consumers is getting more complex. And customers like me have begun to notice.

Amazon has sometimes treated its returns as losses, offloading rejected items or bundling them for sale at auction instead of returning them to stock. But over the past year or so, and for the first time I can remember, I’ve been getting frequent notices checking in on my returns. “This is a reminder to return the item below,” the emails say. One such item was an HDMI coupler—a home-theater-cable doodad—that I’d bought from Amazon, and then sent back successfully (I thought) for an automated refund. Now the company was telling me that the coupler was unaccounted for. Send the item back, it warned, or you’ll be charged for it again. I’ve had this same experience—where Amazon insists that it never got an item I really have sent back—many times now. In some cases, I did end up getting charged, and had to talk with customer service to unwind the matter. Sometimes it took several separate calls or chats to resolve.

In the supply-chain industry, providing for returns is known as “reverse logistics.” For a huge e-commerce business like Amazon’s, this system is necessarily involved. Whenever you make a purchase, your items may be shipped to you from a number of different locations, packaged all together in a single box or spread across a handful, and arriving on the same or different days from either Amazon or its “Marketplace” of third-party sellers. Then, if you want to return an item, all those elements must be unwound. According to Zachary S. Rogers, an associate professor of supply-chain management at Colorado State University, Amazon is better adapted to this problem than other online retailers. “They have understood for a long time that returns are a necessary evil,” he told me. The company also makes lots of money from Prime memberships, which come with fast, free shipping and returns.

“The name of the game now is mitigation: How do we mitigate this crazy number of returns?” Rogers said. “One of the things you could do is put a little more friction in it. They’ll never say returns are going to cost money or not be allowed. But if it’s a little more inconvenient, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” In other words, if a return process put customers off just enough to dissuade some returns, but without upsetting the precious idea of free returns, that would be a net benefit for retailers. Rogers, who used to work in logistics for an Amazon subsidiary, couldn’t say for sure whether this was going on at Amazon or any other online retail company. And Amazon itself, through its spokesperson, told me it would be “patently false and misguided” to assert that any of its return practices are meant to discourage returns. “Customers usually get a product they love, but in case they don’t, we welcome returns and invest heavily in technology, infrastructure, and staff to make them fast, convenient, and easy for customers,” the spokesperson said.

Still, Rogers told me that he’s seen other retailers add rules and limits to their returns practices. A company might not let you return a television that you bought the day before the Super Bowl, for example. But sellers have to be careful. “You can put some subtle frictions in the system, but you can’t go overboard,” he said.

I’ve certainly dealt with some form of friction using Amazon. The company may unexpectedly split up a group of items into separate returns, for example. That experience can be disorienting. In principle, you might order three of the same hand towel, discover the color isn’t to your liking, and then be forced by the website’s software to return two of them in one batch and the other in a second. And although Amazon still advertises free returns for many of its products, what that means in practice may vary by customer. You could be directed, as I was, to a self-service return kiosk at your local Whole Foods. Or you could be sent to Kohl’s, or Staples, or perhaps the UPS Store.

The spokesperson for Amazon told me that the company presents customers with return options “based on product attributes” and that “the options for return locations may vary.” But that’s not the whole story. “Behind the scenes, Amazon is figuring out the cheapest return option for them, today,” Rogers suggested. The best way for Amazon to route an item might vary with factors such as geography (in rural areas, USPS pickup might be cheapest, for example) or current shipping volumes (a UPS Store might provide for more or less efficiency than Kohl’s on any given day). “I think they cherry-pick the things that make sense for them economically,” Rogers told me. When presented with this assertion, Amazon’s spokesperson did not offer a response.

Consumers have no view into this back-office murk, and the confusion it engenders may effectively be limiting returns. I couldn’t help but wonder if this explained my problems with “unreceived” items that I’d definitely sent back to Amazon. Perhaps my returns had veered off-course amidst the convoluted steps of grouping items with their proper labels, determining whether each one goes into a return-shipping box, and then understanding where and how they ought to be dropped off.

The company rejected the idea that customers have been flummoxed by the nuances in its system of returns. “A lot of this is based on your experience,” the spokesperson told me. Out of curiosity, I asked Amazon corporate to look into my account. What had gone wrong with my return of the HDMI dongle, or of the box of stainless-steel washers, both of which I’d sent back to Amazon in January? And what had happened to the pack of nail-in cable clips that I’d returned in April? The spokesperson said that I’d packed the first two items together in one bag when it should have been two. That’s possible, I suppose. It’s true that I was flustered at the drop-off. The barcodes all looked the same, and the item thumbnail on my phone screen, which I had to reference at the kiosk, was hard to see, and I didn’t have enough hands to do everything.

When summarizing the review of my orders, Amazon’s spokesperson told me: “You didn’t follow the instructions properly.” Again, this may be true—but I’d been trying to follow instructions, and still things didn’t go my way. Amazon eventually conceded that one of the unreceived-return notices I’d gotten, for the cable clips, had been sent in error, because the item was incorrectly scanned at the fulfillment center. The company also told me that the kiosk had allowed me to use the same barcode twice for the storage cubes because “when not all of the items fit into one bag, the kiosk allows customers to print multiple labels.” The whole experience seemed riddled with arbitrary, hidden rules.

I’ve been feeling less inclined, these days, to make returns. Others seem to feel the same. “If I even think there is a .1% chance I may have to return an item, I am not buying it from Amazon,” one frustrated customer posted on Reddit a few weeks ago. Others have alleged that Amazon is taking longer to issue refunds than it used to. The company maintains that the system is working very well for its customers. It says that 90 percent of eligible refunds are issued within five hours. The spokesperson told me that kiosk returns are completed on average in 60 seconds, that “hundreds of thousands of customers use these kiosks weekly” and that those customers “provide highly positive feedback on the experience.” Amazon also stressed that its system for processing returns—which I’d come to see as a sprawling bureaucracy—is actually designed for convenience, offering customers one or more free return options at 8,000 locations across the U.S., the spokesperson said. But from his perspective as a logistics expert, Rogers thinks that’s not a totally straightforward answer. “Everyone I’ve talked to, almost universally, feels that there needs to be some control of the crazy cost of returns,” he said of the retail sector overall. “But you have to do it in a way that’s subtle.”

Indeed, the whole returns situation seems equivocal. I’ve noticed returns getting harder recently, but Amazon contends that it only ever strives to improve its processes. Is it possible that we’re both right? “They might want it to seem like they’re making returns easier, when it’s actually harder,” Feldman, the WashU professor, said. “That’s probably exactly what they want.” (Amazon had told me that this is not, in fact, what it wants.) Feldman added that it might be difficult for the company to know exactly what makes returns “easier,” anyway. Different options may appeal to one customer but not another. “There’s no silver bullet.”

Faced with that reality, Amazon has tried to do it all: In the absence of a silver bullet for returns, it now provides an ammunition store of options (though it may be the case that only one of them is free). But this creates its own problems, Rogers told me. “As you increase optionality, you add complication,” he said. “From the consumer’s side, it’s not just one consistent process every time.” Inconsistency isn’t only maddening for people with some storage cubes that they don’t want. It may also lead to more mistakes in processing their returns, and more anger over missing refunds.

Late in the process of writing this story, I created yet another free Amazon return, but did not get the option of making a poly-bagged, Whole Foods drop-off like before. Instead, I was instructed to seal all four of my items into a single shipping box (I’d already recycled mine!) and take the package down to the UPS Store. I did not feel like I’d been graced with any greater freedom by this new directive. The choice of where to go had been made on my behalf. That might be more efficient in the end, but it makes me feel like a cog in a reverse-logistics machine I can never hope to understand, but which I also cannot seem to give up.

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