This past summer I was reading 3D printing posts on Reddit and saw the mention of “bin stores” where people were purchasing filament and other 3D printing accessories for cheap. I started looking at what a “bin store” was and learned that they are stores that buy up Amazon (and other company) returns by the pallet load and sell the contents by spreading them out on tables that have lips (i.e. bins) to keep in the products. In addition to returns, the stores sometimes have items that didn’t sell so there may be multiple of the same item.
I was quite intrigued by the concept and mentioned it to my wife and she was also curious. I looked at a store about 20 minutes from our house and we went the next day. The stores that I’ve found use a similar strategy where they re-stock once or twice a week, have a higher price per item the first day, i.e. $10 the day after restocking and then reduce the price each day until re-stock day. Some stores will clean up the tables before re-stock day and sellable merchandise they take down to Mexico to sell.
Walking into the store, we were overwhelmed to see how much random stuff was for sale. We quickly realized that we had to be good shoppers by actually looking up the products that interested us to see if they were a deal or not. Some things for say $7 that sell new for $10 aren’t that much of a deal; however, something that sells for $25 we can get for $7 may be worth it.
After our first excursion, we decided to go back on the day after re-stock to see if there was better stuff. We got there early and had to wait in line before they opened. While waiting, we talked to a man that says he looks for just tools so that he can resell them and he mentioned another store to also check out. We went to the other store which was huge and spent several hours there looking around. We developed a system where my wife was on one side of the table and I was on the other and we’d go down each row so that we could see if there were any treasures in there.
As each trip is an adventure, my wife and I have been going every few weeks to kill some time. We also stop by the Grocery Outlet next door and do a little grocery shopping. Some of our trips are more productive than others; my son came with us once and picked out a Sony professional microphone that retails for about $250 that he picked up for $7. He sold it on eBay for $95! We’re not always that lucky, but have found some interesting products that at $5 an item (I like $5 day is it is a good balance between impulse buy and decent mix of available products.) are worth the trip.
Here’s a small sampling of what we’ve picked up for $7 or less:
- Non-contact thermometer (human and surface)
- Strainer that clips on pot
- Bluetooth barcode scanner (I wrote an app for this that lets me easily scan items and look them up on Amazon for use on future trips)
- Shoe orthotics
- Foot stretcher (for my plantar fasciitis)
- Fidgets for my wife to use at her school
- Grabber tool (for picking up trash and hard to reach items)
- Brita water bottles (built in filter)
- Webcams (can be adjusted whereas the one on my monitor always cuts off the top of my head)
- Name brand kitchen scissors
- Bluetooth hygrometer/thermometers
- HDMI capture device
So while we’re enjoying this new “hobby” and have picked up some useful items (we usually put stuff in our cart and at the end go back through and ask each other if we really need/want it and if it is worth it; we tend to put back a bunch of items), I’ve started to think more about the return problem.
These bin stores don’t seem to have a shortage of merchandise and the stores we’ve been to are only a small sampling of stores across the country that are doing the same thing. I’ve pieced together what happens from some articles as well as what I’ve seen at the stores. When an item is returned to Amazon (or Kohl’s or Target), a number of things could happen to it depending on the seller. If things are sold by a third party, I’ve read that the seller can either pay to have the return sent back to them or basically just eat the cost and have Amazon “dispose” of it. In addition, if things don’t sell, they may be in the same situation. Shipping costs money and it may cost more than the item resulting in items being “disposed” of by selling by the pallet load.
In some cases, items may be resold if they are new and unopened. However, this has a cost associated with inspecting and restocking the item. I don’t believe that this problem is going to go away any time soon. While it is great for my wife and me to have a treasure hunt adventure, the environmental costs in both shipping the products and disposing of what doesn’t sell even after the bin stores is huge. If companies move towards charging for returns and discouraging returns, that could reduce this slightly.
However, there is still the issue of producing things that don’t sell. For instance, we routinely see metal signs with various slogans on them and it is obvious that they didn’t sell. If a company makes them, ships them from China to Amazon to sell, it may take a few months to arrive. Then they try to sell them for a few months; in the meantime they are producing more. If they don’t sell, they may have part of the initial inventory to get rid of as well as the additional items produced before they were told to stop. Local manufacturing could cut down on the lag time and cut off production sooner, but using the theory “if we make it, we can sell it”, creates more products that people may not need.
Is there an easy answer for reducing the waste caused by returns or over manufacturing products that aren’t purchased? Unfortunately no. I try to do my part my thoroughly researching items before purchasing and rarely return items. This is especially true having seen where the returns end up and thinking about the impacts of my decisions.