A few months ago, Amazon.com made it mandatory for apparel sellers to “participate” in their automated returns process which provides buyers with a pre-paid mailing label.

As third-party sellers, we were both grateful and terrified of this new program. We were grateful because return labels are expected from sellers these days and Amazon was making it easier to provide buyers with them. We were assured we could deduct the price of the label from a customer’s refund, so we viewed this as a positive change. The terrified feelings came from the abuse apparel sellers take from a very small number of buyers regarding returns. It’s a small number, but those buyers sure have a way of making their presence both known, and remembered.

As sellers who sell items that are usually photographed and not worn afterwards, we have had our fair share of food-crusted, worn out, smoke-filled, and pet-haired items. We would normally charge a restocking fee on those items and move on. We also received a high number of packages where the buyer simply wanted to exchange for another size. Things common with apparel, right?

Apparently, Amazon doesn’t think so.

Amazon’s returns program comes with a feature I’m sure they think is pure genius. If you don’t issue a refund with 48 hours of a return arriving at your facility, Amazon very helpfully issues a refund on your behalf. Don’t worry, they ask no questions in advance, but they do send you an email like the following:


The buyer of order 111-XXXXX-XXXXX returned the item(s) to you using prepaid label with tracking number 1XXXXXXXXX, and it confirms that the package arrived on Feb 02, 2018.

Because you did not refund the order within 48 hours of receipt, we have issued a refund to the buyer and will debit the amount from your seller account.

— Refund Amount: $40.59



Firstly, 48 hours may be long enough for a small book seller to deal with a couple of returns, but it is not long enough for a large apparel seller to deal with the influx of packages that arrive when you process hundreds of orders a day. Apparel has a high return rate and once the items arrive, you have to check them. This isn’t a sealed box of crayons we’re talking about.

If you do happen to find an item that is used, ripped, etc., you’re out of luck. The customer has already received their refund and are pretty much laughing all the way to the bank.

Secondly, as we all know, packages get mis-delivered all the time. A fairly high number of packages we have been charged for never actually were delivered to us.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is absolutely no way to account for exchanges in this automated process. We sell multi-piece apparel sets on a regular basis. Each piece is meant for a different person. It is common for one or two of three items to fit, but one piece  to need a size exchange. Guess how buyer’s deal with this? They send back the piece they need an exchange for. That makes perfect sense.

Guess what Amazon does?  They refund the entire amount while you’re processing the exchange. (You’re on a timer, remember?)  They refund even if you processed an exchange. So the buyer then gets their correct piece and ALL their money back. In addition to the shipping three ways you, as a seller, just paid for. There is NO WAY to indicate the buyer asked for an exchange and you are processing it.

So guess what we did? We stopped offering exchanges.

We’re upset about this, our customers are upset about this, and Amazon.com either has no idea this is happening or they don’t care. We know their software has the capability to offer exchanges because as buyers we’ve seen this ourselves when buying an item that is sold by, and shipped by, Amazon.com.

Customers are rightly infuriated by the response from us that we can’t offer an exchange. I guess we could tell them that we can do it if they bypass the returns center, but I have a feeling that would get us suspended and also generate a ton of negative feedback. So, not an option at all.

I’m not sure how automated returns works for sellers of books, or toothbrushes, or dog bowls. I don’t think those items have high return rates, but I could be wrong. What I do know is that apparel has the highest return/exchange rate of all categories. Implementing an automated system in apparel was extremely short sighted.

Another issue with their returns system focuses on “reason codes.”

I mentioned earlier that you can deduct return shipping from refunds, and you can. But if Amazon processes the refund for you, you better check the reason code. More likely than not, Amazon refunded both the original shipping and the return shipping.

“Item arrived too late” means you lose shipping both ways. Never mind that buyers often use this as an excuse if they didn’t get it when they wanted it, regardless of estimated delivery dates. If they check this, Bam!, full refund including two shipping costs.

You’d think Amazon would check the delivery dates programatically when issuing the refunds. Nope. They just pretend those dates do not exist. In 99% of our cases, the package arrived during the shipping window.

“Item Defective Or Doesn’t Work” is another good one. This usually means it didn’t fit. You know what this means for the seller? See above.

“Inaccurate Website Description” is one of my favorites. One customer recently used this because she ordered purple, received purple, and then said she expected purple to be more masculine.

So let’s recap: Customer buys an item, doesn’t like it, doesn’t want to pay return shipping, so they choose a reason code that doesn’t apply. Amazon gives them a full refund. Problem solved for them and the seller loses.

Let me reiterate: returns & exchanges in the apparel category are extremely high. In fact, in a study by the University of Regensburg, they reported that apparel has a return rate that is between 25%-50%.

The study went on to say that many return items because they don’t like the fit or fabric, but 13% “order stuff online without a purchase intention – ie: knowing in advance that they will send it back.”

You may be thinking… raise your prices and account for this. Yep, good idea. Except Amazon invited all of China to sell in apparel so the prices are already rock bottom.

Given this information, and the fact that amazon themselves offer exchanges for apparel, I will go out on a limb and state the automated returns process on Amazon for apparel simply does not work.

Amazon does provide a way for seller’s to appeal all these automated refunds. It’s called a Safe-T claim. To get there you have to click through 6 screens and then fill out a form and include supporting images.

They make it extremely time consuming to file these claims. Claims you are filing so you can be refunded for charges you shouldn’t have been charged for to begin with. Several times I’ve had to re-open cases because the support person didn’t check their math and refunded incorrect amounts.

Do I think the whole program should be scrapped? Of course not. Easy returns for customers means higher customer satisfaction and more sales. What do I recommend? The following:

  1. Allow customers to indicate they would like an exchange instead of a refund. Leave the order alone if they indicate an exchange.
  2. Send sellers a message stating that 3 business days have passed since a return was received and they have 2 more business days to process it, or a refund will be automatically generated. Give sellers a way to report that they have not received said package.
  3. Check actual tracking numbers and compare the actual delivery date to the estimated delivery dates.
  4. Make Safe-T claims easier to file. Include a link from the order page in the return center.
  5. Link the Returns Center page information to the main order page. Right now, you can’t see if there is a pending return or shipping label costs from the main order page. You have to be in the Returns Center order page to see this information.
  6. Give sellers a way to indicate items were received damaged within the Returns Center.

If anyone at Amazon is reading this, please feel free to reach out. We’d love to provide some seller input.