Is “deshopping” killing the high street?
We’ve all thought about it, but for a select few, buying something, keeping the tags and returning it after it’s been worn is a full-time job. It also happens to be fraud. Here’s everything you need to know about this practice ›
she mumbled, as she quickly scanned her room for inspiration. Then, her eyes fell on an unworn black bucket hat, the same colour as her hair, perched atop a pile of folded clothes. She reached for it, plonked it on her head with one hand while she grabbed her tripod with the other, and dashed out of the door for a day of shooting. She would return the whole outfit the following morning, just like her spreadsheet said.
It’s a well-rehearsed routine for the 29-year-old Londoner, who has turned the process of buying, wearing and returning clothing into something of a science. And she’s not alone. Deshopping, serial returning, wardrobing – whatever you call it, shoppers have been returning worn clothes for years. Chances are, you’ve either done it yourself or you know someone who has.
Research indicates that one in every 20 adults in the UK has engaged in deshopping.† In the US, it’s estimated that return fraud costs retailers a whopping $27 billion (£19.6 billion) annually‡ – a number only expected to rise with the uptake of online shopping. According to Royal Mail, 75% of customers purchasing women’s clothing online returned an item within the last three months. So we know that serial returning is widespread and, well, questionable at best, but did you know that it’s also illegal?
Defined as “the deliberate return of goods for reasons other than actual faults in the product”, deshopping is, in its purest form, “buying something with no intention of keeping it”.** This is different to changing your mind about a dress when you get home from the shops – it’s planning to return the dress before you have even bought it. The behaviour is premeditated and equates to gaining “pecuniary advantage by deception”, an offence under The Theft Act 1968 (c.60). The thing is, proving that someone is planning to return an item before they’ve paid for it is, as you can imagine, quite tricky – so it’s a bit of a legal catch-22.
“They think it’s just a little bit naughty, these people wouldn’t shoplift,” explains Dr Tamira King, co-author of the article “When the customer isn’t right”, published online for Harvard Business Review. For a small
“Almost ready,” she thought, as she tucked the bulky cardboard tag back into her bleached white jeans. The morning sun streamed through the bedroom window onto Jemima’s slight frame. A black crop top skimmed her stomach. “There’s something missing…”
number of deshoppers, there’s an addictive side to returning used goods, similar to gambling. “Someone will say to me, ‘When you’re handing out your money, you’re losing, when you’re returning, you’re winning,’” explains Dr King. This process is called “mood repair” – a pick-me-up strategy to make the individual feel better about the situation. But for the majority of wardrobers, returning clothes is less about “winning” and more a case of “trying their luck”.
“I remember feeling this sense of shame,” admits Jemima, bemused. “I’m quite an open person, but it’s not something that I would go blabbing about to most people.” Building her Instagram profile on the side of a full-time job, Jemima’s once-minimalist flat now resembles the stock room of a high-street clothes shop, with plastic packaging and return slips sitting in roughly organised piles pushed up against the walls. “When I’m shopping, I’m like, ‘OK, I need this. I need to wear something like that. Let me just get this quickly.’ And if all goes well, I’m going to return it,” explains Jemima. “I’m at the Post Office every week returning things.”
Retailers are starting to crack down on customers cheating the system. In 2019, ASOS started blacklisting “serial returners” to discourage shoppers from exploiting their free returns policy. Missguided now attaches tags to the front of its garments instead of the side, which, once removed, mean the item cannot be returned unless faulty. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer has set up an independent department specially trained in identifying return fraud. The problem is that making returns policies stricter and pricier also runs the risk of turning away genuine customers.
Contrary to what you might think, Jemima doesn’t wear the clothes for nights out with her friends, which, she says, would be “really rude” and “unfair”. Instead, she deshops because she feels she needs to. As a content creator and aspiring model, she says there’s a constant pressure to look good online. “People share things on social media every day and nobody wants to see the same outfit five times. So it’s this sense of, ‘What’s a new look? What’s a different look?’”
Notably, since what we wear sends a message to those around us, Dr King says that deshoppers are effectively “getting all the symbolic value out of items without actually paying for them”. But it’s not long before this near-insatiable desire for newness becomes unsustainable.
“As much as it is, for the most part, cheap clothing, it does add up. And the only thing that makes me feel better is knowing that I’m planning on getting that money back,” says Jemima. She admits she would still deshop even if she won the lottery. “It just doesn’t make sense to keep things that I know I’m not going to wear again.”
Deshopping, though, is bigger than people like Jemima returning worn jeans or brands tightening their policies – it’s symptomatic of a fashion industry that has run away with itself. The life cycle of trends is now mere weeks, and retailers, consumers and the planet are all struggling to keep up. The system is broken, and deshopping is just one of the results. Perhaps only once we stop thinking of fashion as “fast” – and, ultimately, “disposable” – will deshopping truly become a thing of the past.
“It just doesn’t make sense to keep things that I know I’m not going to wear again”