Columns

Whatever happens to bad Christmas gifts? 2016.12.07

By RICH FOLEY

Christmas is less than three weeks away and unlike some people who enjoy waiting until the last minute to do their shopping, I’m not that lucky. Most of the people on my Christmas list live in Texas, meaning I have to finish shopping early and wrap and package everything so the post office has sufficient time to deliver the presents to their various destinations.

I guess I should just be happy not to be the subject of someone else’s nightmare gift giver story. I used to know someone whose brother would return gifts he no longer desired to the original giver as their present. I don’t mean regifting unwanted presents to someone else. I’m talking about clothing he had worn out, electronic items he had broken, etc., wrapped up and returned to whoever gave him the item in the first place. I’m surprised anyone this happened to ever gave him another Christmas gift.

Another person I know had a father who had a habit of buying people “presents” that he really wanted himself. One Christmas, after years of no telephone in their home, the father broke down and ordered phone service, calling it the family’s Christmas gift. Problem was, the children had to ask him for permission, often not granted, to use their “gift” while he could phone at will.

That was some gift, but not as bad as the year the father bought one of the children a rock polisher. The child had never expressed a desire for one, but the father had many hours of fun polishing rocks while making the child watch him enjoy himself. He could have just given the kid a lump of coal instead, although I can’t be sure that he didn’t do that as well.

But for more normal people who merely want to return a purchase or gift for a refund, there’s often an interesting destination ahead for the item. According to the Wall Street Journal, about one quarter of all online Christmas season purchases will end up being returned. Items worth in excess of $19 billion were returned after last Christmas.

The growth in returns has been boosted by more online retailers offering customers free shipping on any unwanted items. Returns by category start at about 10% to 15%, but jump to 30% or more for clothing. After all, how many people actually keep one of those crazy Christmas sweaters? I’ve got to believe that The Clapper has to be among the most rejected items, as well.

It’s common practice that some online retailers don’t even take possession of returned merchandise, even items that haven’t been opened. They find it easier to let logistics companies handle the chore. Those companies gather the returns from various retailers they have deals with and then resell them in bulk. And when I say bulk, I really mean bulk.

Some resellers liquidate collected returns in lots ranging from ten truckloads to as many as 100 truckloads at a time. Buyers of such huge quantities usually get a discount of 80% to 90% off original selling prices. Most of these items end up in dollar stores, at flea markets or even pawn shops.

Another trend is what I’d guess you’d have to call a middleman liquidator. One company, which works with Wal-Mart and Home Depot along with other retailers, breaks truckloads of returns down into smaller amounts to attract more buyers. Quantities as small as a single pallet are auctioned off by the company on the internet, then winning bidders can pick up their purchase directly from the respective retailers warehouse.

The biggest demand for returned goods is usually for sporting goods, housewares, children’s toys and consumer electronics. However, one company that works with Groupon has handled items running the gamut from ping-pong tables to jewelry to bicycles to vintage auto parts. The company sells their merchandise both on eBay and on their own website.

A Chicago man owns two warehouses and has 90 employees helping to sort and resell returns from companies like Amazon. His biggest months, not surprisingly, are January and February. Time is of the essence when reselling some of these items. I would think it’s very important to find homes for all the thousands of returned Chia Pets before the sprouts dry out. After all, who would want to buy a bald Chia Donald Trump?