'Tis the season for returning gifts: UPS expects to break records

Buying more things online means Americans are also sending back more packages
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A UPS delivery

A UPS delivery

It's a pretty unavoidable effect of more people buying things online: more people are returning things they bought online. (Or things other people bought for them.)

The next few weeks are likely to see packages sent back to retailers at a pace we've never seen before.

Who benefits from that? Well, the people who haul those packages back and forth definitely do.

UPS said Tuesday it expects to set a new record on a day the company calls National Returns Day. They've calculated that on Thursday, Jan. 5 they'll be sending 1.3 million deliveries back where they came from.

According to their projections, the first week in January will see more than 5.8 million packages returned. Both numbers would set new records by breaking this past year's totals.

But UPS says customers benefit from all these returns, too, by getting what they really want – and sending back what they don't want.

In a big study of online shopping UPS did this year, they say consumers feel like the return process has improved over the last few years – with fewer problems, fees, and delays.

They also found that when online shoppers are returning an item to a store most of them (about 70 percent) also make another purchase.

Lots of in-person returns, too

That two-fer of returning something and buying something else was also one of the things that made the day after Christmas one of the busiest of the year for retailers.

Plenty of stores had post-holiday sales on Monday and lots of shoppers were armed with gift cards. The retail consultants at ShopperTrak predicted months ago that Dec. 26 would be second only to Black Friday as the busiest shopping days of the year at stores.

But even if they make some residual sales, a week with millions of returns is generally not a good thing for retailers.

A study by the National Retail Federation says returned items cost American companies $260 billion in lost sales last year. And here's some perspective: the federation says a company as big as that would take over the number 3 spot on the Fortune 500.

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