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The (not-so) secret second life of your Amazon returns


Sometimes, I have the good fortune to use this space to advance an arcane theory about television. Sometimes I use it to talk about a news event of interest. Today, I want to tell you about the weirdest thing I have been watching on YouTube recently.

It has to do with returns.

Amanda Mull wrote a piece for The Atlantic in October about the fact that when online purchases in particular are returned, they generally aren't worth going to the trouble of vetting, inspecting and reselling. They're sort of cursed (my word, not hers), and it's really just a problem of getting rid of them. As it turns out, one thing that can happen to them is that people order pallets of them, knowing either something or next to nothing about what they're getting, and then they open the pallets for the benefit of YouTube viewers. (These videos are not new, to be clear; they are just new to me.)

Consider HopeScope. Hope has just over a million followers as of this writing (she ran a promotion where she would give away, among other things, a Peloton when she hit a million). She buys a lot of weird stuff in different videos and shows it off: lost luggage, used Kardashian clothes, knockoff versions of movie dresses. But one of the things she does is buy pallets of Amazon returns from a liquidation site. (And Target returns, incidentally.) The merchandise comes to her in massive pallets full of mystery, and she opens the packages and sees how she fared. She tends to go for pallets that are labeled as if they're mostly clothes. Oooh, leggings! Underwear! A KFC Christmas sweater!

One time, she bought a pallet that seemed to have been damaged: a bunch of the clothes looked like they had been burned and/or run over. The clothes might not have been much to look at, but there was clearly a heck of a story there. I might have paid just for the story.

This might seem like a pretty chill hobby, but I am always startled when she reveals that she paid something like $1,500 for a box of returns that are supposedly "worth" $20,000. She keeps some things, donates some things, resells some things and throws away things that have been, for instance, on fire at some point. She always seems to feel that in the end she did well, but ... what is doing well, actually?

She is not the only person who does this. There are different genres of these videos. People who are clothing oriented do them. I've seen a bunch of people who are tech oriented crow about getting $2,000 worth of "tech" for $150 or something and then open the box and find a lot of mislabeled cables and printer ink and, often, one or two things that really were sold for a pretty high price and really do seemingly work; you just don't get to decide what they are. (I once saw a stray, apparently unopened Anova sous vide machine — a pretty decent grab — show up in a clothing pallet, and the person was like, "Eh, I don't know what this is." Similarly, one guy got a Dire Straits record on vinyl and said, "Never heard of them.")

Of course, the reveals — It's a hot styling tool for your hair! It's expensive earbuds! It's a Nespresso! — are only the beginning of figuring out what you've actually done. Because these things have been returned. That means many have been opened, many have been used, many have been found wanting in some way. Again: Many have been used. I saw a guy who was pretty psyched about a pair of earbuds until he saw ... the evidence that they had been in someone's ears. Ditto a shaver that had been used to shave someone's ... something before being returned.

One couple I have seen has actually done a couple of rounds of tracking how much money they can make by buying and trying to resell (like on Facebook Marketplace) the items in a pallet. They have found it to be ... somewhat unsatisfying. The woman estimated that once she accounted for her time, she earned about 12 bucks an hour "flipping" a pallet, after quite a bit of effort. It's better than nothing!

But I don't think the actual monetary gain is the goal here at all. It's the surprise of it and the performance of it. And it's the promise of getting something for nothing, even if the something is not something you want. These folks use the word "worth" in the stretchiest and most generous way possible — "This is worth $300!" just means that's what it was being sold for on Amazon. The fact that something was once sold for a particular price does not actually imbue it with that substantive value (ask the people who invested in Theranos).

What's really striking is how these videos underscore the onslaught of stuff, the acquisition and disposable nature of stuff, and the fact that sometimes just getting a bunch of stuff that's so cheaply made it's not worth trying to resell piece by piece makes these YouTubers feel like they're getting away with something. (I also think that in effect, these people have discovered the dollar store and could get a similar effect by going into a dollar store with their eyes closed and just taking home the first 50 things they ran into.)

There was a guy who summed this up in one video so perfectly that I wrote down his comment immediately. He had just found, among his "tech" stuff, a package of 100 interoffice mail envelopes. Just ... interoffice mail envelopes, in there with the doggie camera and the filthy earbuds. He didn't need them, didn't want them, knew immediately he would throw them away, but he was still really impressed that he'd gotten such great value. He said: "No use for these, unfortunately, but damn!"

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.