At a Cost Plus World Market in Oakland, California, masked shoppers are filing in with their holiday near-misses. They’re not just bringing back Ikat dinnerware and burlap wall art that didn’t quite hit the gifting mark, however. The Happy Returns “bar” within accepts unwanted items from digitally native brands like Eloquii, Everlane, and Rothy’s, which it refunds with a scan of a QR code.
Similar bars in malls, college campuses, and inside stores like World Market across the country are doing an equally brisk trade. Online return rates are three to four times higher than brick-and-mortar stores, David Sobie, the company’s co-founder and CEO, explains. And amid the pandemic, returns, like e-commerce, are surging like never before.
As packages flood into homes, however, so does the packaging that keeps their contents intact. It’s something that people like Ayeshah Abuelhiga, founder of the Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. in Baltimore, constantly worries about. Packaging waste is a big part of why, save for a brief foray into online shopping in 2019, Abuelhiga has mostly resisted selling her frozen biscuits, scones, and rolls online. Shipping her products requires insulated containers, packed with dry ice and swaddled with bubble wrap, that are designed to keep the products from spoiling before they’re ready to pop into the oven. Another reason is the tacked-on costs of all that stuff made little financial sense.
“It didn’t seem like a good value proposition,” she says. “Consumers were just paying for dry ice and packaging.” Then Covid-19 hit. Suddenly, Abuelhiga says, her customers were complaining that they were stuck at home or that the physical stores in their neighborhoods didn’t have the items in stock. So in July, the Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. threw the “shop online” button back up. In a matter of weeks, Abuelhiga was fielding thousands of orders. As the holidays crept up and people splurged on variety packs with names like “Treat Yo Self” and “Miss You a Waffle-Lot” as gifts or for self-care, sales skyrocketed to $200,000 per month. “We’re doing about 350 percent growth,” she says. To manage the deluge, the company has increased its staff by five times, with three dedicated to just packaging orders.