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”.