A Clothing Return Roundtable

Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash.

When I was a teenage mall-frequenter, there was something so uncool about returning clothes. Maybe it was the memory of returns as a kid, my mom scrounging for receipts and garments with tags still attached and then waiting in long lines to get money back. Maybe it was the fact that most of my clothes were fast fashion and not expensive enough to make the return worthwhile. Maybe it was that I hated the awkward encounters with sales associates who already seemed pretty annoyed at my presence.

Things changed once buying clothes was less an exercise how I could spend my disposable income and more of a required expense — I needed to be appropriately dressed for life, after all. As I began investing in quality wardrobe pieces that often came with a higher price tag, I also started returning any purchases that, on second thought, weren’t the best choices for my wardrobe. I still felt a little awkward making the return, but if I wasn’t going to get decent use out of a $60 dress, the money was better used towards other things.

Technology has changed the way we buy and return clothes. When ordering clothes from online retailers, sometimes it takes multiple purchases to find the right size and fit — so many people buy multiple options and return what they don’t want. However, online retailers have started cracking down on frequent returners, with some big companies using third party companies like The Retail Equation to monitor returns and Amazon banning customers who return items too frequently. Even companies that used to tout their generous return policies, like L.L. Bean and Nordstrom, have recently limited the types of returns they’ll accept. People who used to depend on returns may have to start turning to resale apps to recoup the cost of their unwanted purchases.

I was curious whether my peers also felt conflicted about whether or not to return clothing, so I asked a group of friends about their outlook on returns and how return policies affected their shopping habits. Here are their anonymous responses:

I find returning clothes intensely stressful and try never to put myself in a situation where it would be necessary. My mom and grandmother have a totally different attitude about this and are forever buying me clothes and casually saying, “If you don’t want it, I’ll just return it!” Maybe I’ll feel differently once I have picky kids, a few more decades of life, and more disposable income so that if something goes wrong in the return process I don’t feel guilty about losing the money.

I am an (embarrassingly) frequent online purchaser and returner. Easy navigation, seemingly endless selection, promo codes, and fast shipping make online shopping so much more pleasant than shopping in store. I often purchase multiple sizes of a given item and seeks out online retailers that offer free shipping on returns.

I feel like shoes I’m more inclined to return just because of the blisters. For clothes, if something is a bit smaller, I might keep thinking that I’ll lose some weight. If it’s larger, or in person I’m not that interested when I see it, I might ask my friends if they want it for a rounded down price. I notice with my StitchFix because you only get the 25 percent discount if you buy all five items, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy all five items even if you don’t like one of the items than it is just to buy the four items you do like. So then I have something I don’t particularly like so I’ll make a mental note and ask my friends or donate it at the end of the year.

I tend to buy things I like without a practical use for them. Since it takes more effort and time to return an item over $15, I typically either sell it on Poshmark, give it to a friend, donate it, or let it sit until I magically find a use for it.

I don’t really shop that often — maybe 2-4 new pieces every three months. More often than not, I find myself shopping at boutiques while traveling, making it next-to-impossible to return items. I’m much pickier about what I buy than when I was younger, now that I know how the donation process works.

As a tall, plus-size woman with big feet, I have to do most of my shopping online. Since brick-and-mortar stores don’t really cater to me, I am very familiar with returning clothes. I usually order two sizes of everything, and a few different styles of the item I’m looking to buy, with the idea that I will return at least 75 percent of any given order. Some places allow returns to stores, but most don’t since they don’t carry the sizes I’m ordering there, so my life hack is to set a Google Calendar reminder of when I need to send things back. It’s a bit hard to budget since I usually pay a lot up front because I need to order so many different pieces just to find one that fits, but I do curb my subsequent spending until I get credited for the return.

I’m not much of a clothes shopper, and typically avoid buying clothes. I hate having to return clothes so I usually just try everything on in the dressing room so I don’t have to go back. I also don’t spend much money on clothes, H&M is my staple, so it’s not much of a loss if I end up not returning it. The last dress I bought that didn’t fit is still hanging in my closet with the tags on, but to be fair it was like $10!


I dislike trying anything on and the dressing rooms — ugh!! T.J. Maxx, especially, with their great lighting and you come home with your purchase, try it on again, and — bam! Shrek is looking back at you in the mirror. I always have something in the car to return, and I do return my stuff. Sometimes if it’s less than ten dollars and the 30 days are up, I don’t, though.

So I probably am not a good person for this particular question, because I seriously haven’t bought many clothes recently (though I desperately need a new wardrobe). I will say that I have no problem returning clothes.

I am a huge returner when it comes to beauty products, etc. BUT this has recently changed with the advent of these third-party companies that now monitor returns and tell the companies if you like seem to return a lot. And I’ve noticed too that places will now give a gift card as a refund instead of returning the money to your card. So I think my devil-may-care attitude towards returning is changing because of this and how we’re now being monitored and basically not far from being treated as a criminal for making returns.

I hate returning anything, and usually will try not to if I can avoid it. If I do order something that’s either too small, too large or unflattering I will try and return it in store (I don’t mind waiting for the package but once it doesn’t fit right I want it returned ASAP). If I can’t return it in store I tend to keep it even if I don’t love it or it’s not the best fit, mostly out of laziness.

I take advantage of return policies all the time, and it’s a huge part of how I shop. For clothing, I frequently shop online, ordering multiple sizes and colors, and returning what doesn’t work. I have a hard-to-fit body type and i never know what size I will be and hate when you cant find your size in the store. I do sometimes get in trouble with budgeting when I spend a lot to reach a free shipping threshold and don’t return as much as I planned on. I try not to take advantage of return policies because I do know it costs the retailer money. Since I mostly buy from the same 4-5 stores, I know that in the end, I am still giving the retailer a lot of money.

Fun anecdote: with my new shopping companion (my three-month-old daughter), I have had to take advantage of generous return policies when I find out that my baby carrier or stroller won’t fit in changing rooms!

I’ve never been one to buy clothes in multiple sizes with the intent to return at a later date. Truthfully, I make every effort to dissuade myself from doing just that. My game plan for purchasing clothes has always been to make any and all necessary assessment in terms of size, price, and wearability. And honestly, this is a habit that I’ve taken from my folks.

There’s always the risk of having to return something, whether it’s due to fit, or if the product is damaged etc. So in any case, I make sure to hoard receipts and have the trigger ready to return if necessary. I hate doing it, but if it’ll help me get my money’s worth… I make it a priority. I also think my having worked in retail for 10+ years allowed me to see this process a bit more clearly and place a higher value on my time and effort shopping.

So, Billfolders, how often do you return clothing items? Does it affect how you buy clothes? Will any of the changes in how returns are monitored change your buying habits?

Kimberly Lew is a writer and sometimes returner living in Brooklyn. www.kimberlylew.com

This story is part of The Billfold’s Clothing Series.

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