Many Happy Returns

Unlike 2021, the due date for U.S. tax returns was back to mid-April this year.  Most of us sweated under the ticking clock as we combed through statements and receipts in search of last-minute tax breaks. I have this recurring pipe dream where the IRS tells me to just keep what I owe (followed by the dream of how I would spend the money). Sadly, I’m a taxpayer who rarely sees a refund, and keeping what I owe certainly won’t happen. On the other hand, retailers could soon be asking me to keep what I want to return.  Now there’s something to ponder.

Picture this.  You place an Amazon order for a brand new Playstation 5.  You plunk down the $500 it costs and a few days later your purchase shows up on your doorstep.  But while you were waiting for your gaming console the IRS sent you a reminder about the balance due on your 2021 taxes. Whoops. You owe that $500 to the federal government, young taxpayer.  Hello, buyer’s remorse.  Full of regret, you contact Amazon to arrange the return, and their carefully worded response goes like this:

Dear Amazon Prime Member.  Thank you for your inquiry into the return of your Playstation 5 gaming console.  After reviewing our current stock we have determined it is not necessary for you to return this product.  Accordingly, nothing further is required at this time.  You can expect a full refund applied to the credit card used to make this purchase.  Thank you for shopping with Amazon.

Wait… keep the product AND get a refund, you say? Crazy, I know. Or maybe not, at least if you shop at Target or Wal*Mart.  Both retailers are considering this no-return approach with clothes, garden furniture, and “bulky” kids’ toys among other products they currently overstock.  It’s the result of consecutive worldwide events.  First, the pandemic, which allowed consumers to build up their savings accounts while mostly staying at home.  Second, record-setting inflation, which dragged a knife through what was supposed to be a post-pandemic spending frenzy.  Retailers stocked up early in anticipation of the purchase party, but then the lights and music were abruptly cut off.  The result: overstocked with a capital “O”.

This version of keep-the-product-keep-the-cash kinda-sorta happened to me years ago.  My sister-in-law ordered a ping-pong table for her family and when it came, they discovered a bit of damage in one corner.  So she contacted the company, who told her, “Keep it.  We’ll just send you another one.”  Thus, in a moment labeled “Christmas not on Christmas”, my family got a free ping-pong table (Thanks, Sis!) Sure, the bounce of the ball was a little off on that one corner, but my kids didn’t care.  Besides, before I knew it they were old enough (or not) to drink and pretty much destroyed the table when they shifted to beer pong.

But I digress. With a ping-pong table I’m almost sure the cost of shipping back to the manufacturer was more than the profit after fixing and reselling it.  So my sister-in-law got two tables for the price of one.  Hey, what if she’d bought ten ping-pong tables and all of them were defective?  She’d go up and down her street handing out free tables.  She’d gain a bunch of new best friends and her neighborhood would hold massive ping-pong tournaments.  All for the cost of one table.

The problem at Target and Wal*Mart is more than just the cost of returns and overstocked items.  It’s also, they can’t charge the same price they charged you.  For one, the item may be offered at a discounted price by the time you return it.  For two, certain items have to be classified as “used” and can’t be offered at full price after the first purchase, or even offered at all.

“Un-resellable”

Which brings me to orange juice.  Orange juice, you ask?  Yep.  Try to return a jug of juice to the market some time.  We bought five jugs a couple of months ago for our daughter’s bridal shower, assuming the mimosas would flow like Niagara Falls. Wrong. Only a few of the guests opted for the bubbly since the shower was mid-day.  So I called my local market to confirm the return of four unopened jugs of juice, and was horrified to hear, “Sure, you can return them for a full refund.  But we’ll just throw out the juice.” Throw out the juice?  Yes, it’s the world we live in these days.  Many food items cannot be resold for fear of tainting.  So I’m drinking a lot of orange juice right now.

Let’s wrap this public service announcement with a caveat.  One of these days you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you end up with a purchased product AND a full refund.  Lucky you – it’s “Christmas not on Christmas”!  If it’s through Amazon, however, be wary of the following purchases: hazardous materials, gift cards, jewelry, groceries, and live insects (uh, live insects?) None of those can ever be returned, nor will you get your money back.  In other words, the sea monkeys you adopted in a moment of nostalgia (remember those, Boomers?) should be considered bought and paid for.  No refunds.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “Just keep your returns…”, and the Clark.com article, “12 Items That Can’t Be Returned to Amazon”.

Shelf Life

The rural neighborhood I live in hosts a Nextdoor electronic newsletter, allowing residents to post online for all sorts of reasons. (Loose animals are a frequent topic.) Today, however, one thoughtful neighbor said to look beyond first responders and hospital staff for a moment and acknowledge other workers deserving of the spotlight: grocery store employees. Talk about people we take for granted. After all, they’re keeping an eye on 20,000 different products on the shelves of the average U.S. supermarket.

I had to double-check that number to believe what I was reading.  Nielsen, the research and ratings firm not only confirmed the number but said U.S. grocery stores experienced a 4.5% decline in 2020 (so more like 18,000 products).  Shouldn’t surprise us, especially with global supply chain interruptions.  And it’s easy to remember the most popular products missing in action.  Bath tissue, cleaning wipes, and canned soup, for example.  Others however, you probably didn’t notice.  Bumble Bee, the tuna maker, reduced its product count from 300 to 225.  Progresso Soup (a personal favorite), dropped its canned choices from 90 to 50.

Now, guess what?  Bumble Bee is not only back to its 300 products but adding new ones regularly.  Progresso is back to its ninety soups and doing the same thing.  So much for the “death of variety”, huh?  And speaking of variety, did I say ninety soups from a single manufacturer?  I’d be lucky if I could name twenty-five (“tomato”, “chicken noodle”, “clam chowder”, uh, uh…)  No wonder soup gets so much real estate on supermarket shelves.

J.M. Smucker is taking a similar tack.  They make a dozen varieties of peanut butter and two dozen more of jelly but last year you had to go without “Simply Jif”, “Reduced Fat”, and “Omega 3” versions of both.  Today, not only are their PB&J’s back but Smucker has introduced “Jif Natural Squeeze” and a smaller snack version of their popular “Uncrustables” frozen sandwiches.  It’s as if the pandemic was a small speed bump en route to ever-increasing variety.

Post Grape-Nuts cereal (which earned solo attention from me in “Ever Eat a Pine Tree?“) disappeared entirely in 2020.  For a while there you couldn’t find any version of the tooth-shattering cereal on the shelves.  But now the gravel is back, and Post is making a bold move to “apologize” for last year’s inconvenience.  If you paid $10 or more for a box of Grape-Nuts from November 2020 to March 2021, Post will issue a partial refund for the “unreasonable” portion of the cost.  You need your receipt, of course.  Clever marketing there.  How many people keep their grocery store receipts from six months ago?

Speaking of bold moves, here’s one I think we should sustain; a sort of pandemic silver lining.  At many hotels “housekeeping” has been reduced to the time between stays instead of every day.  My wife and I recently spent four nights in a Marriott hotel and at no time did housekeeping enter our room.  Instead, we gathered up dirty towels and exchanged for new ones at the front desk.  We emptied our own trash.  We made the mini soap/shampoo/conditioner bottles last.  It was hardly an inconvenience.  It was also nice to know our room was undisturbed the entire time.

Similarly, dropping grocery store product totals from 20,000 to 18,000 was subtly a good thing.  We were forced to simplify our pantries and go more back-to-basics.  We cooked more.  We ate more whole foods (instead of fast foods).  Let’s hope those habits remain, even while consumer goods manufacturers crank out ever-more variety.

There’s a newish bad habit driving grocery store shelf life however; one bound to stay a while.  The percentage of snack/junk foods you’ll find is higher than pre-pandemic days.  Why?  Because working from home drives the demand.  Accordingly, you’ll find 10.9% more salty snacks on the shelves, 11.5% more energy drinks (including PepsiCo’s caffeine-laden Mountain Dew Rise), and 14.8% more pastry items.  And (most disturbingly), you’ll find 79.2% more pre-mixed cocktails.  Whoa now.  Somebody might want to post on Nextdoor for the invention of a web-based sobriety test.  They’ll make a fortune.

Some content sourced from the CNN Business article, “These foods disappeared from grocery stores last year…”, the CNN Business article, “The Grape-Nuts shortage is over…”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.