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Why online retailers increasingly let customers keep returns—and don’t want you to know much about it

Getty Images

This holiday shopping season, you might be surprised when you try to return an unwanted item. Instead of an online retailer confirming that a product can be returned for free—as many shoppers now expect—it might tell you to just keep it instead.

The general trend among retailers like Amazon in recent years has been to make it as easy as possible to return unwanted merchandise bought online. But in some cases, it costs more for a retailer to have an item shipped back—and sorted and resold, if not disposed of—than it’s worth. (There’s also the environmental cost to consider.)

This year, 59% of retailers offer “keep it” policies for such products, up from 26% last year, according to returns services firm goTRG, as Reuters reported. The firm surveyed 500 executives at 21 major retailers, among them Amazon and Walmart.

According to Reuters, shoppers that it interviewed said they had been told not to return products at Amazon, Chewy.com, eBay, Temu, Keurig, and Wayfair, with prices for the items ranging from $20 to $300.

Of course, information about keep-it policies is “not something that retailers want out there” given they might be abused, goTRG CEO Sender Shamiss told Reuters.

Nearly 90% of retailers revised a range of policies this year, including charging for some returns and encouraging shoppers to bring online returns to stores, Optoro CEO Amena Ali told the news agency. Her firm helps retailers manage and resell returned merchandise.

To be sure, shoppers might bristle at such changes, as Amazon recently learned. Earlier this year, it said that it would start charging shoppers $1 when they return purchases to a UPS store if there was a Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh, Kohl’s, or Staples store closer by. Amazon owns Whole Foods, and it has a partnership with Kohl’s and Staples allowing Amazon shoppers to make returns there.

Amazon shoppers were quick to complain, with many suggesting on social media that they would cancel their membership to Amazon Prime because of the charge. One advantage of returning via UPS is that shoppers can then track the package, which isn’t always true with returning a product directly to a retail store.

But Amazon and other retailers are looking to cut costs, and returns is an obvious area to focus on. Returns surged in 2021 and stayed elevated last year, when they accounted for $816.8 billion in lost sales across the U.S. retail marketplace, according to data from the National Retail Federation. The percentage of returns reached 16.5% last year, nearly double the pre-pandemic rate. The pandemic prompted many retailers to quickly implement or expand “buy online return in-store” opportunities, and that might have spurred more returns, said the NRF. One way Amazon is addressing the problem is by adding a “frequently returned item” label to troublesome products, encouraging shoppers to read reviews more carefully.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com