Amazon's Prime return policy is broken, and consumers are paying for it

Hope you’re ready for a trip to Kohl’s.

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I hate going into department stores. I hate walking through aisles and inevitably looking at crap I don’t want or need. I hate asking underpaid staff for help (they’re overworked and I’m trying to avoid asking questions I’m sure they’ll find annoying).

I hate waiting on long lines to check out and process returns. I have more patience for smaller stores — shops run by normal people just trying to make an honest living in a corporate world — because it's tough only getting a few customers a day while staring down rising rent.

I don’t consider myself an anti-social person — I’m almost always the person to goad everyone at a party to do dumb shit or drink more than they should — but when it comes to shopping, I prefer the experience to be as cold, efficient, and human-free as possible. That’s why I prefer Amazon. Just let me buy the stuff I want whenever I want from wherever I want (you know what I’m talking about).

But as convenient as Amazon is — I can get two-day delivery thanks to Prime — the behemoth is not without fundamental flaws. Jeff Bezos built Amazon into a multi-billion dollar global empire without fully understanding the consequences it would wreak on humanity and the planet.

Wealthy-nation conveniences like Prime have put pressure on Amazon’s network of global fulfillment centers and have led to abusive working conditions. Reduced shipping times have clogged up delivery infrastructure; air and ground transports can’t keep up with the influx of shipping that Amazon had no choice but to lease fleets of airplanes to meet demand, strike a deal with USPS, and explore drone delivery systems. All of this has increased Amazon’s carbon footprint, which is definitely contributing to the planet warming up.

In just 25 years, Amazon has made fast shipping its core product. Buying stuff on Amazon is so easy that one-click buying really should have an extra PIN or passcode requirement because I’m too trigger happy. Fast shipping, however, comes at the expense of simple returns. Whereas returning stuff was once as simple as printing out a prepaid label and dropping it off at UPS store, the process is more of a hassle today. As the year wraps up, you may find yourself making more returns thanks to the holiday gifting season… and, like me, maybe wondering why Amazon’s asking you to go to Kohl’s to do it.

When I do make returns, I’ve come to expect the process will be as stress-free as possible

I don’t make many returns to Amazon (or anywhere, really). My family didn’t have much growing up, and because of that, my mom made sure we understood the value of everything we bought. Every new item we got had to have a purpose and longevity because if it didn’t last, that would be it for a while. So I rarely make returns because if something is easily disposable or has no lasting value, I shouldn’t have bought it in the first place.

But when I do make returns, I’ve come to expect the process will be as stress-free as possible, because life is hard enough already. Nobody wants to scroll to every retailer’s website footer page only to find the return policies are vastly different. A lot of that expectation was built by Amazon Prime, where return policies have been mostly consistent for years: free 30-day returns, with hassle-free label-making and shipping all in one spot. It’s one of the cornerstones that’s made Prime such a hit with consumers.

But as I learned over the weekend, returning stuff to Amazon isn’t as simple as it once was. Before, if you requested a return, Amazon would create a shipping label for you to print out, tape to the box, and then drop off at a UPS store. Convenient, cold, but extremely efficient.

But things changed this year.

An unnecessary trip to Kohl’s

Apparently, if you’re returning an item and it’s not defined as Amazon’s “fault,” you’re basically a trash person and as punishment, you’re directed to bring your item to a physical Kohl’s store. Some poor sucker at Kohl’s will pack and ship your returned item instead of you. Sounds simple enough — but why Kohl’s? They use similar distribution channels, Kohl’s desperately wants the foot traffic, and Amazon can cut down on its overhead.

The partnership program is active in over 1,150 Kohl’s stores in 48 states. That’s a lot of stores… if you live in a city with many Kohl’s. I live in New York City with a population of over 8.5 million people — a city where there’s no Kohl’s in two of the densest boroughs, Manhattan and the Bronx. There’s one in Queens and one in Brooklyn, and they’re both way too far for anyone but locals to trek out to.

It’s mind-boggling that Amazon recommends millions of New Yorkers go out of their way to drop off a return at a far-flung Kohl’s. A trip to Kohl’s from midtown Manhattan would take as long as one to the airport.

Ain't nobody have time to trek out to Kohl's for an Amazon return.SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

How is telling me to literally go find a Kohl’s store and wait in line to deal with a likely-unhappy customer service rep (you know how things get during holiday season) at all remotely aligned with the company’s e-commerce business, which thrives precisely because it provides a hassle-free shopping experience that doesn’t involve wasting time at a brick-and-mortar store? Sure, you get a 25 percent discount coupon off any Kohl’s purchase if you drag your butt over to a store to make an Amazon return, but is it worth it? I don’t think so.

I shop at Amazon because I dislike antiquated retail experiences. A coupon to a store I prefer never to step foot in won’t sway me or most shoppers. Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass told the New York Times in July the partnership with Amazon was already reaping benefits — specifically, it’s attracting younger customers.

“What’s really key and what our data would suggest is that we’re also bringing in a new customer and we’re bringing in a younger customer,” Gass said. A quick poll of some of my younger friends and their even younger teenage pals suggests otherwise. None of them said they’d be caught dead at Kohl’s (or a TJ Maxx or JC Penney).

A problem Amazon made

I realize complaining about making returns at Kohl’s is a very specific, American problem. And optimists could even go as far to say the inconvenient policy might be an attempt (albeit a very soft one) by Amazon to discourage returning products, but we’re also talking about Amazon here.

Two-day shipping is fucking magical, but Amazon has repeatedly shown how ruthless it is. Here are two perfect examples: 1) its insensitivity towards displacing a struggling community when it tried (and failed) to build a massive HQ2 in New York City that would have been funded by over $1 billion in tax incentives and 2) it prioritized shipping efficiency and profits above worker safety as reported in this bombshell piece by Buzzfeed and ProPublica.

Amazon's creating a fast shipping mess it can't keep up with when it comes to returns.Raymond Wong / Input

I’m sure Amazon PR would be more than happy to say it’s trying to help reduce its carbon footprint by leveraging Kohl’s or put some other corporate spin on it, but if it wants to cut waste and cut costs, it needs to communicate to consumers why it’s doing what it's doing and what its expectations of customers really is. It doesn’t seem like Amazon’s keeping close tabs on which customers are abusing its return policy; there are some cases where Amazon has banned customers for high “return activity” but you rarely hear about them. Other retailers like Best Buy and Urban Outfitters are more vigilant on this front; if you make too many returns, you’re effectively flagged within its systems and barred from returning anything.

Without any way to shame customers into not making tons of returns (like some kind of rating or something!) or clearer explanations and rules around returning products, there’s no reason to believe Amazon has made it a top priority to solve the problem its online shopping machine has created. It doesn’t help that we also know most returned products end up as part of random pallet crates that are then auctioned off. And just a note: further expanding free returns to “millions” of more products also explicitly suggests that curbing returns isn’t a priority at all for Amazon, in case the company was hoping we’d get some more subtle point it’s trying to make.

Time for new rules

My problem does have a solution, one that forces a consumer to abuse the service: you can lie. Yes, lie through your teeth so Amazon waives the cost of a UPS return. If you select “better price available” or “no longer needed” as your return option, there’s a very high chance Amazon will kick you over to a Kohl’s store or charge you for a UPS dropoff.

Printing a label, packing the item, and dropping it off at a UPS dropoff is more expensive than having someone else handle shipping? Raymond Wong / Input

But if you lie and select an option like “inaccurate website description” and make up a random reason — ta-da! — you can get a return label for free and drop it off at a UPS at your own convenience.

The shipping fees are waived if you lie during the return process.Raymond Wong / Input

I have no doubt I’m not the only Prime member abusing this loophole. The return policy is seemingly random and doesn’t make sense most of the time. Why does it cost me nothing to bring an item to a store and have them pack and ship it, but $7.26 if I want to use the box my item literally came in, print out the label with my own ink and paper, and then drop it off at UPS store or a drop-off box? It costs me more money to save time than it does to waste time waiting for a customer rep to do the work I could have easily done myself. Umm… what?

According to consulting firm AlixPartners, it costs retailers twice as much to accept mailed returns versus in-store; a package can cost retailers up to $6 if it’s returned in the mail compared to about $3 if returned in-store. The logistics make sense and it’s hard to refute the fact that offering in-store returns can help Amazon and its partners save on costs. But if those costs are passed along to consumers, so Amazon’s margins continue to rise, it needs to make a clear change on how returns work for Prime products and let customers factor those changes into their purchasing choices.

Amazon’s made a liar out of me. They’re white lies. But I’m still a slightly less honest man because Amazon, a company to which I pay $119 per year, refuses to treat me like the loyal, responsible customer I am. And I’m definitely not alone in that. Returning products is inherently bad — bad for the environment and bad for your sanity and all the people involved with processing it. It’s time for Amazon to rethink the rules.

It’d be a herculean challenge for Amazon to undo the damage its free returns policy created (it should have thought of this earlier when the system was more manageable), but a necessary one to reverse the bad habits shoppers now have ingrained. Until then, expect making returns to be less convenient, especially in the next few weeks, as the busiest holiday shopping season on record turns into the busiest return season, too. There’s a cost to everything when you shop with Amazon, even when you throw money at it to make it go away.

If forcing customers to visit Kohl's or a UPS store is Amazon’s indirect way of penalizing people for returning products, it needs a more explicit way of clamping down on its return policy. It’s impossible to try to backdoor-condition hundreds of millions of users with inconvenient return policies like going through Kohl’s.

Here’s what I propose:

  • I think Prime members deserve free hassle-free returns that don’t involve a trip to Kohl’s. Non-members should be required to pay for their own return since they’re not paying recurring fees to maintain all the infrastructure.
  • Amazon should also impose a limit on the number of returns a customer can make during any period, and perhaps with a penalty if they surpass it.
  • Spell out why it’s kicking customers over to Kohl’s. A simple, direct and honest explanation during the online return process highlighting how in-store returns help cut down on shipping costs and reduce carbon footprint could provide enough of a feel-good attitude to convince customers to give it a shot.
  • In addition to partnering with Kohl’s, Amazon should expand the returns program and bring other physical retailers into the mix (I’m sure stores, big and small alike, would love more foot traffic).
  • Invest in the physical infrastructure it already has: Whole Foods; there are fewer Whole Foods in the U.S. (479), but I’m willing to bet most people would rather go to the supermarket than Kohl’s. I know I would since there are significantly more Whole Foods in New York City and they’re also easier to get to.
  • Limit instead of expand the number of products that come with free returns.

These are just a few ways for Amazon to start rehabilitating its monstrous e-commerce machine. Amazon owes it to customers to bear responsibility for the fast-order-and-shipping convenience that it made mainstream. Saving on shipping costs is understandable for a struggling mom-and-pop shop, but Amazon earned $70 billion in revenue in Q3 2019, an increase of 24 percent year-over-year. It can afford to use a chunk of all that money to create solutions that not only do right by its customers, but also the planet.