spring fashion

The Return Grift Is Over

Photo: Phillip Toledano / trunkarchive.

Last summer, Karen, a product manager in San Francisco, returned $180 worth of her $295.39 order from Urban Outfitters. The next time she clicked CHECKOUT on an order from the retailer, a few weeks later, it wouldn’t go through. Confused, she kept trying — until she got an email informing her that she was no longer allowed to order from the website, or any of its associated establishments, because of an “excessive return rate.” She was surprised. She had been steadily returning items to Urban Outfitters about once a month since high school without a problem. “I would essentially use the return policy the same way other people use stores and malls because I don’t have a car,” she says. “When a company says ‘free returns,’ there are probably some people they expect won’t return anything. But then there are people like me.”

As it turns out, there are a lot of people like Karen, online shoppers who return things almost as frequently as they place orders. And online retailers, many that built free returns into their business strategy, finally seem to be reaching their limit. Which makes sense: In 2023 alone, people returned $743 billion worth of merchandise. Now sites like ASOS and SSENSE are handing out lifetime shopping bans to longtime shoppers they determine have returned too much too often. What constitutes “too much too often” can be vague. None of the brands mentioned in this story — all of which either have a free-return policy or charge a small fee — specify an exact dollar amount or frequency that adds up to a lifetime-ban-worthy violation. Instead, there’s language like “unusual and unreasonable” and “patterns of ordering and returning items” as grounds for deactivating accounts and restricting or refusing orders. (The vendors either declined requests for comment or referred us to their return policies.) The shoppers we spoke to (some of whom used pseudonyms) were startled to find they were banned — having grown accustomed to an internet where returning a boot is exactly as seamless as buying that boot in the first place.

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When you’re playing high-volume-returns roulette, you never know when a request will be the last straw. Alexandra Lamoreaux, a Utah-based mental-health therapist, was informed that ASOS would “not accept any further orders” after she returned $695 worth of items she bought for a family photo. She’d just had her third baby a month before and, unsure of her postpartum size, decided to order a wide spectrum. When she got the email, she was shocked, she says. “I thought there had been some kind of mistake or that ASOS had been hacked.”

While Lamoreaux admits she’d made returns to ASOS in the past, she signed up for an “ASOS Premier” subscription for $24.99 a year specifically to get unlimited free shipping and free returns. (Online, ASOS does note this perk is subject to a “fair use” policy.) She was eventually refunded for the order, at least, but only after opening a dispute with her credit-card company. “Frankly, I should have gone after them for that $24.99 too,” Lamoreaux says.

Fashion stylists are more intentional about returns — it’s pretty much standard practice among up-and-coming stylists to order a ton from a retailer, photograph it, make sure not to spill anything on it, and return it. Emily says she got away with making $15,000 order-and-returns for editorial shoots at Saks once a month for over a year before she was banned. When she was notified, she freaked out, she says. “When you don’t have relationships with brands yet or PR agencies that facilitate the loans, it’s vital,” says Mara, another New York–based stylist. She got banned from shopping at SSENSE after making thrice-a-year order-and-returns on the site for about three years. The last straw was the return of about $1,500 worth of jewelry, pants, and tops she’d ordered for a shoot. The company noticed, it wrote in an email to her, that she had returned “most of the items” she’d purchased and, furthermore, posted a photo of one of them on her Instagram account. She was shocked because she’d taken great care to ensure everything was returned in “perfect condition,” reapplying tags after removing them for the shoot and dry-cleaning any makeup stains.

But there is no appeals process when it comes to the lifetime ban, no forum to make a case that you should be allowed to shop again. This is something that Nora, an attorney, was alarmed to find out after she was banned from ASOS in 2021. That year alone, she’d made 172 ASOS purchases and had returned 99 percent, by her estimation, of what she’d bought. The company doesn’t have a customer-service phone number to call, and the pleading emails and chatbot messages Nora sent were met with the same message: It was a final decision. “It was frustrating to be stonewalled,” she says. This became especially problematic when her sister — who uses a different credit card and lives in an entirely different state — was banned from the site as well. They suspected it was because they share a pretty unique last name, Nora says. Her sister wasn’t able to get reinstated, either.

But knowing you can’t make a return can also be a relief. Nadine Hanson, a server, had long taken advantage of Sephora’s generous return policy. The highly lenient policy afforded her the ability to sample so many products it had begun to feel genuinely stressful keeping up — she’d buy a product once a week, use it once or twice, then rush to send it back. Then she received a rare warning instead of an outright ban. If she didn’t stop making returns, it said, she’d be unable to make another one going forward. Now, she’s forced to be certain that she actually wants something, she says. “I’m buying things and then keeping them, and if the product isn’t perfect, I just handle that.”

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The Return Grift Is Over