Photo: Phillip Toledano / trunkarchive.
Last summer, Karen, a product manager in San Francisco, returned $180 of her $295.39 order from Urban Outfitters. The next time she clicked PAY on an order from the retailer, a few weeks later, it didn’t go through. Confused, she continued trying, until she received an email informing her that she could no longer place orders on the website or any of its partner locations, due to an “excessive return rate.” She was surprised. She had been returning items to Urban Outfitters about once a month since high school without any problems. “Basically, I would 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 who expect them to return nothing. But there are also people like me.”
It turns out there are plenty of people like Karen, online shoppers who return things almost as often as they place orders. And online retailers, many of which have incorporated free returns into their business strategy, finally appear to be reaching their limit. Which makes sense: In 2023 alone, people returned $743 billion worth of goods. Now sites like ASOS and SSENSE are imposing lifetime shopping bans on long-time shoppers who they feel have been returning too often. What constitutes “too much too often” can be vague. None of the brands mentioned in this story (all have a free returns policy or charge a small fee) specify an exact dollar amount or frequency that adds up to a violation worthy of a lifetime ban. Instead, language such as “unusual and unreasonable” and “patterns of ordering and returning items” are used as reasons to deactivate accounts and restrict or reject orders. (Suppliers either declined requests for comment or referred us to their return policies.) Shoppers we spoke to (some of whom used pseudonyms) were surprised to discover they were banned, having grown accustomed to an Internet where returning a boot is exactly the same. as simple as buying that boot in the first place.
When you play roulette for big wins, 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 be accepting any more orders” after she returned $695 worth of items she purchased for a family photo. A month earlier she had just had her third baby and, unsure of her postpartum size, she decided to order a broad spectrum. When she received the email, she was surprised, she says. “I thought there had been some kind of mistake or ASOS had been hacked.”
While Lamoreaux admits she’s 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 returns. (Online, ASOS notes that this benefit is subject to a “fair use” policy.) Finally, they at least refunded her order, but only after opening a dispute with her credit card company. “Frankly, I should have gotten them for that $24.99, too,” Lamoreaux says.
Fashion stylists are more intentional about returns: It’s pretty standard practice among up-and-coming stylists to order a ton from a retailer, photograph it, make sure you don’t spill anything on it, and return it. Emily says she got away with ordering and returning $15,000 for editorial shoots at Saks once a month for more than a year before she was banned. When they told her she got scared, she says. “When you don’t already have relationships with brands or PR agencies that facilitate lending, it’s vital,” says Mara, another New York-based stylist. She was banned from purchasing on SSENSE after placing orders and returns three times a year on the site for approximately three years. The final straw was the return of around $1,500 worth of jewelry, pants and blouses she had ordered for a photo shoot. The company noticed, wrote in an email, that she had returned “most of the items” she had purchased and also posted a photo of one of them on her Instagram account. She was surprised because she had taken great care to make sure everything was returned in “perfect condition,” replacing the tags after removing them for the session and dry cleaning any makeup stains.
But there is no appeals process when it comes to the lifetime ban, nor a forum to argue that you should be allowed to buy again. This is something Nora, a lawyer, was alarmed to discover after she was kicked out of ASOS in 2021. That year alone, she had made 172 purchases on ASOS and had returned 99 percent, by her estimate, of what she had bought. . . The company doesn’t have a customer service phone number to call, and the pleading emails and chatbot messages Nora sent received the same message: It was a final decision. “It was frustrating to be hindered,” she says. This became especially problematic when her sister, who uses a different credit card and lives in a completely different state, was also banned from the site. They suspected it was because they share a rather unique last name, Nora says. Her sister could not be reinstated either.
But knowing that you can’t make a return can also be a relief. Nadine Hanson, a waitress, had long taken advantage of Sephora’s generous return policy. The highly lenient policy allowed her to try so many products that it started to get really stressful to keep up: She would buy a product once a week, use it once or twice, and then rush to return it. She then received a rare warning instead of an outright ban. If she didn’t stop making returns, she said, she couldn’t make another one in the future. Now she is forced to be sure that she really wants something, she says. “I buy things and then I put them away, and if the product isn’t perfect, I just deal with it.”