Returning Items Bought Online

Returning Items Bought OnlineI sometimes like to ask myself, what are my core competencies? What am I really good at — an expert in? Ladies, you’re in luck: I am an expert at returning items bought online. (I’m maybe a bit of a shopping bulimic, and while I’m not proud of this, it’s just kind of where I am in my life right now.) I have my own little system for how I return items bought online, and I’m curious to hear: Ladies, do you have any other systems or hacks for returning items bought online? Another question here: What’s your understanding of the etiquette of returning stuff? Let’s bypass the question of whether I’m being a jerk by buying a lot of stuff and then returning it — I feel like return policies were created to address this question, after all — but I do try to make things as easy as possible on the person handling the return at the other end.

So here’s my system for returning stuff online (starting from the moment you’ve decided what’s staying and going).

  1. Mark the return codes as the store wants you to. For some stores (Nordstrom, Amazon, Zappos) you can do this all online and get a neat little printout — but for some stores you have to retain the packing label. (I often print to PDF so I have a record of what I’m sending back, but also so that I can easily reprint if there is some printer failure.) Sometimes they want you to fill out a bunch of stuff on the back of the form, in very small table format — I usually skip that and circle the stuff I’m returning on the packing label itself, writing the return codes next to it. (My theory here is that no one wants to read my little scribble if they can read the same information printed).  If I don’t have a digital copy of what I’m returning, I snap a quick cell phone picture for my own records.
  2. Separate your items, and fold neatly. For some stores (Nordstrom, Lands’ End, Gap) I may be returning items that were either purchased in different orders or shipped with different packing labels. If this is the case, I will often get clean plastic bags to separate the items, putting the matching returns sheet into each bag of merchandise. For what it’s worth, I do try to fold everything neatly — but I also assume that they will steam everything on the other end. Obviously all tags are still attached, but I don’t always return things in the clear plastic bags they come in (particularly the hanging bags that Nordstrom sends — if anyone has a good trick for getting the item off the hanger without totally ripping the bag I’d love to hear it). It seems to me there is a lot of variation in how something is packed based on who is preparing the package for shipping — I’ve gotten t-shirts on hangers and blazers folded — so I usually skip hanging things back up unless it’s really easy to do with the box I’m sending back.
  3. Pack the box securely. I’ve found this out the hard way: the post office will only either send a) a completely blank box, or b) a box bearing a logo for the place it is going to. So: don’t try to send a Nordstrom return in a box with Amazon tape (or be really careful about crossing out all other logos before getting to the post office.) First: try to remove all other stickers on the box, as best you can — if anything is left, X it out with the black Sharpie. (This includes stuff the post office may have scribbled on the box itself, like apartment or street numbers, etc.) If the old tape on the box is very raggedy, I remove what I can, but I usually just tape over it. Then, I tape the box up. If it’s a very heavy box I do the “around the world” special with the packing tape where you start on the top of the box, take the tape to the side then the bottom, then pull it up taut around the other side and back to the top of the box where you started.
  4. Keep a record of tracking numbers and more. Before mailing, we take quick cell phone pictures of the return label (whether it’s the one the company provided or the one we bought at the post office) — I say “we” because my husband is often nice enough to return my boxes to the post office for me!
  5. Know what to expect on your cards, and when. My final step: I make a note in Remember the Milk (my preferred app for to-do lists) to say, usually, “due 3 weeks Nordstrom return $X + $Y + $Z.” I often do it like that because the returns often seem to go back on my credit card in accordance with the original order, not the return. I recently had a Banana Republic/Gap/Old Navy return where we had bought things from all three stores, using three different promo codes (as you do) and possibly even “SuperCash,” and I could not for the life of me figure out how much money I was expecting back when the “get $25 off $50” deals were factored in. It all seemed to work out fine in the end but it kind of felt my quant skills were lacking.

All right, ladies, let’s hear from you: What is your system for returning stuff bought online? Do you prefer to return stuff at the store or by mail? How do you remember when money is supposed to be coming back to you, or otherwise check to make sure that the return went ok? 

Pictured: Death to the Stock Photo.



  1. Personaly, I perfer to buy thing’s in Person. I have my own personal shopper at Lord & Taylor, who ALWAYS clue’s me in when the good stuff is in, and I run RIGHT over, b/c the manageing partner knows I want to always look good in court, and this often mean’s haveing the latest dresses and pump’s that the judge like’s. But when I do buy on line, I NEVER return it. It is to much of a pain to mail thing’s back. Instead, i just donate it to good will. Dad thinks I am dumb, but I realy do NOT want to stand on line at the post office or FEDEX to send something back. FOOEY!

  2. oof, definitely cringed at the term ‘shopping bulimics’

  3. FrankieCat :

    two things that have helped me:
    – after dropping off at usps/ups write down what the return item was on the shipping receipt, then take a picture of it or file away in an envelope in my car

    – keep the tags on the item until I actually wear it.. keep the return labels etc. I started doing this and have returned a few things I felt I ‘needed’ a month ago but my need has mysteriously gone away now

  4. Anonymous :

    I’ve always wondered if you could combine returns under a shipping label if they were bought in different orders. Specifically, I mean Nordstrom. I would include both return forms but they would all be under one tracking number. Does that work?

    • Mrs. Jones :

      Yes, you can. I’ve returned items to Nordstrom and Loft (and possible others that I can’t think of right now) that came from separate orders.

    • Anonymous :

      Be careful about doing this with Amazon. Different items will have different return labels. Even if you include the return label in the package, the processing folks sometimes miss it.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes, I do that all the time.

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I’ve done it multiple times with Nordstrom without issue. I think it worked once with Boden as well. I figure it helps them save on shipping costs, even if just a tiny bit.

      I’ve learned that the key for me is to fill out the form and package the return immediately after trying things on. Otherwise it is likely to sit and I might miss the return window. If it something I’m not quit sure about, I leave all the packaging and materials together and put a reminder in my phone for 2 weeks before the end of the return window.

      Returns got much easier once I got my permanent job. Our mailroom is awesome so I just put the package in my out box and they send it. Saves me a trip to the post office, etc.

    • Return Expert :

      Depends on the store. When I was buying a lot of gear from Moosejaw for an outdoor trip, I tried packing several returns under 1 label. As a result, they didn’t credit one of the items I returned and then I had to prove that I didn’t still have the item because I sent it back (not easy). In other words, the label was linked to a certain order, so combining orders messed up their system.

  5. Anonymous :

    I don’t think #3 is true at all… the Post Office/UPS/Fedex delivers to the address and doesn’t care which logos might be on the box (or packing tape). Just put the new label over top the old one so it’s covered up and you’re fine.

    • I had a bad experience at the post office in Brooklyn where they sent me home with a huge box (and toddler in tow) because it had packing tape on it that said Amazon so… be wary. May the odds be ever in your favor.

      • Sydney Bristow :

        Yup, a post office in Queens does the same thing. They even have big signs showing what is or is not acceptable with labels. I always do my best to peel off prior labels or completely cover them up if I can’t remove them.

      • Anonymous :

        Strange… I’ve done it quite a bit and it’s definitely not post office policy. The packing tape has nothing to do with the address on the shipping label. Old addresses have to be covered, yes, but not other logos.

        • LostInTranslation :

          You have to cover or remove everything with any kind of tracking info on it. Everything is automated these days and the machines that sort the packages see the old info and get confused. Also you shouldn’t stuff any box too full. Boxes have a rating of how much they can hold and reusing/stuffing them too full can make them break on the belt. Finally don’t think that labeling anything “Fragile” does any good. (All these gems and more gleaned from a LP prevention seminar when I worked for one of the big carriers 15 years ago).

          What I don’t like is how everything Nordstrom sends me is in a giant box. So wasteful. I ordered 3 items in the NAS and they all came separately and all in huge cardboard boxes, even a single bra.

    • Daughter of a letter carrier here – can confirm that USPS definitely DOES care what other labels/logos are on the box because, as LostInTranslation said, everything is automated these days. Amazon packages w/ the logo tape are repeat offenders, but even something as simple as not scratching out a small side bar code or handwritten number will cause problems.

  6. I dunno…if you need a system, you should probably take a look at why you are shopping so much and what void you’re trying to fill. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re returning things b/c you aren’t sure of sizing, or the fit is off, but this sounds like a LOT of ordering and returning…

    • I mean… I don’t really see what the problem is, to be honest. Especially during the Anniversary Sale, I’ve ordered SO MUCH that I returned. I could be anywhere from an XS to a M depending on the brand/clothing type. I needed a pair of nude sandals, and I needed 6 pairs to try on to find the most comfortable/flattering/etc. I needed a new pair of black pants– if I order only one pair, there’s no way they’re fitting.

      This comment is unnecessarily judgmental.

    • Anonymous :

      Sometimes you don’t get free shipping unless you reach a certain amount, so you’ll have to spend $99 to get free shipping, and return shipping is free, so it’ll make sense to buy two shirt and return one than to buy one and have to shell out the extra $7 or so for shipping. It’s annoying.

    • Anonymous :

      Dude, I work biglaw hours and I have a kid. I have no time to shop in person at all, and even if I did, I would have to bring kid with me or pay for a babysitter. And then there’s no guarantee that the store will have my sizes in stock, or that my kid won’t melt down while I’m trying on clothes. I need multiple sizes because I don’t know what will fit me, husband, or kid, and I don’t know what will look good on me even if it is my size. Your judgmental comments are both ignorant and unnecessary. AND a lot of clothing, particularly Nordstrom, is online exclusive. The void I am trying to fill is having clothes that fit me and look good on me.

    • lucy stone :

      Which is unfortunately the only thing you can do when your job requires blazers and dresses and you live in a town where there are no stores that sell workwear that isn’t scrubs or coveralls.

  7. I am really terrible at returning items that don’t fit. I’ve basically stopped shopping at 6pm and other places that don’t provide free return shipping labels, because if I had to go to the post office it was just not getting returned.

  8. Personally, so much of my online shopping comes from the fact that I’m an 18/XXL (AND sometimes tall/long too) at straight-size stores which only carry those sizes online. Free shipping and in-store returns is a must for me.

    I’m a Love Loft cardholder but can rarely shop in store and their sizing can vary widely except a few core staples I’ve locked in the proper size on. I will go through cycles where 2 or 3 Loft orders will stack up and I head to the mall with them organized by invoice in bags to make it easy on the associate at the register. Sometimes I keep 80% of the order, sometimes nothing works.

    If I could walk into a Loft, Gap, J. Crew, etc and try on clothes there I would be delighted. Instead, I am stuck in the return cycle.

    • This is my experience too. I like doing in-store returns because then they often keep that size on the shop floor.

      • Same here. I’m petite, typically size 0-2, XS, and it’s tough finding my size in store, which is why I go online. I actually hate doing mail returns so I just return everything to the brick and mortar store (I’ll just do a return run and hit up all the stores in the mall that I had returns for). That gives me a chance to see some of the items in person, for shopping online later. It definitely is a cycle. I will say that I’ve gotten a few judgy looks from sales people, but I don’t let it phase me because I definitely am spending enough money at these stores to warrant some returns.

        • Rebecca in Dallas :

          I’m totally the same, I have to order petites but will order from stores where I can return it to the brick and mortar store. And sometimes if you order the petite size in store (like have the salesperson do it for you), you don’t have to pay shipping.

        • I’m so glad I’m not alone in this. Oh to be a regular size 8! I also make bulk trips with multiple stores. It makes it difficult to budget for clothing, too, because there’s constantly items waiting to go back.

          Honestly, Loft is the BIG ONE that I am constantly making returns to and the associates MUST know me by sight now but aren’t the least bit annoyed or phased. I once apologized so profusely for the trouble and holding up the line and the woman said “hey, I tell people when you’re up here it is 100% about you… this is your time, don’t worry about it” and ever since I’ve kind of let that anxiety go.

  9. Return Baby Shower Gift? :

    Hey all – I put this out there for your collective thoughts. A college friend is pregnant. I was happy for her and bought a couple of gifts from her registry. While catching up recently, I found out she had her baby shower a few weeks ago. So, by implication, I was not invited. So question: (a) return gifts; or (b) still give her gifts? BTW, it is gifts plural. I started feeling really generous when I was in the store and it would be hard to return one of them because anyone with investigative skills who monitors their registry could figure out what I did if I give her only 1.

    • I would go ahead and give her the gifts you bought for her. I’d rather continue to feel happy for her instead of taking offense at the baby shower issue.

      • Wildkitten :

        But if you overspent and want to only give her one gift, I think it’d also be okay to return half. It’d be extreme for someone with a baby on the way to be keeping that close of tabs on their registry. (Though I’m sure it’s happened.)

    • It’s possible that someone else planned the shower, or it was a shower with only a limited group (work or family or something), too.

      Depending on price, as WK said, I might return some. I’d definitely still give her at least one gift.

  10. This comment made me giggle. “I want to always look good in court, and this often mean’s having the latest dresses and pumps that the judge likes.” I understand professional courtroom attire, but who knew that judges were connoisseurs of the latest and greatest fashion trends. But, hey, if Hillz can have a pantsuit in every pattern and color imaginable ….. :-)

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