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Resellers pick through stores' bargain bins in search of items to flip for profit

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now for one of the merriest or Grinchiest (ph) traditions of the holiday season - returning those gifts that just weren't quite right. People are returning more merchandise than ever before, but lots of toys, electronics, and clothing don't make it back to their original shelves. Many end up at bargain bin stores, where resellers comb through in search of items to flip for profit. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money podcast followed one such enterprising duo to learn the ropes.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When I first meet Asalyn Spencer and Mikayla Ridgeway outside the Treasure Hunt bin megastore in Raleigh, N.C., they tell me the first lesson of the return reselling business - everyone else is competition.

Does everybody, like, rush in at the same time, or...

MIKAYLA RIDGEWAY: Oh, yeah, they all run. And they push. They shove. They throw stuff. It's a battlefield in there, literally.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today, a couple competitors have beat them to the front of the line, so they're going to have to be strategic. Asalyn and Mikayla used binoculars to spot treasures amidst the piles of returned goods inside. They then draw up a map and plan out little plays like a football coach.

ASALYN SPENCER: OK, possibly one of us gon (ph) go after the blender and the other will go after, like, the Nuwave air fryer over here or the smokeless grill back there.

RIDGEWAY: Depending on where they go in front of us.

SPENCER: Yeah.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lesson No. 2, they tell me, is to zero in on the trendiest consumer items of the moment, things they can buy for the store's flat rate of $10 and sell for much more online. They got into this a couple of years ago, Mikayla explains, when weighted blankets were all the rage. Then it was air fryers, then massage guns...

RIDGEWAY: And then the next week, it'll feel like everyone has one. And so then we have to move on to a new item and get that, and then it just repeats.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: As the last minutes tick down before the doors open, it starts to feel like one of those World War I movies - when all the grim-faced soldiers are lined up in the trenches, waiting to run into no man's land - until finally, it's time.

We're inside. This looks like an air fryer. Oh, yeah, we've got a big air fryer. It's in a bin.

Inside the store, it's a sensory overload. There are bright fluorescent lights, pounding pop music.

It's like a little retail zombie apocalypse to the tune of "Shape Of Your Body (ph)." It's like "Supermarket Sweep" meets "Mad Max."

Well, I almost got run over.

SPENCER: Did you get knocked down?

RIDGEWAY: Robo vacuums.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, nice - robo vacuum. You're not going to get that pet drinking fountain?

RIDGEWAY: I'm not sure.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lesson No. 3 - stay on task. Asalyn and Mikaylaonly grab things they can sell for 30 bucks or more. They even check prices online right before they check out. If the price it can sell for is too low, they won't buy it.

SPENCER: I think we might put the weighted blanket back because they're kind of hard to sell right now.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You're turning your back on your bread and butter?

SPENCER: I know, I know.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They spent about $160 each week and on average, earn about $800, enough for them to pay their tuition at nursing school. I ask Asalynand Mikaylaif they ever get tired living in this constant flow of returned gadgets and price fluctuations, and Asalyntells me she dreams about not coming back almost every week.

RIDGEWAY: But then we're like, what if they put out, you know, something really good and we miss it? You feel like you're going to miss something if you don't go.

SPENCER: So it's like the Powerball, you know?

RIDGEWAY: It's literally addictive.

SPENCER: You play nonstop and then that one time you don't play...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Does it feel like an addiction, kind of?

RIDGEWAY: It is - definitely addiction.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Looking around as we check out at the piles of returned goods that might never find a second life, it's hard not to wonder about this system we've created where it's so easy to return things, the costs have basically been swept under the rug. Which reminds me, maybe I should buy a robot vacuum.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.
Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).