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  • Writer's pictureChristine Ducey

The Costs and Consequences of Amazon Returns

A Seller Perspective

You sell an item to a customer. The product gets to its destination in two days, is in perfect shape when it arrives, and you, as a seller, feel great about a job well done. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the customer returns the item to Amazon: turns out, it wasn't exactly what they wanted. 

The inevitable process of handling returns is a critical aspect of the Amazon business model for brands selling on Amazon. How returns are handled can impact a brand’s financial health, operational efficiency, and reputation. This article will take a deep dive into how returns can affect your business model and discuss options for mitigating any negative impacts. 

Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

Financial Impact

The financial impact of returns on Amazon encompasses both direct and indirect costs, affecting the profitability of sellers. From handling refunds and shipping costs to managing inventory and product depreciation, the return process imposes significant financial burdens (and, as a result, opportunities). 

Direct Costs:

1. Refunds and Restocking Fees

FBA Sellers:

For FBA sellers, Amazon handles customer service and return processing. Amazon charges a returns processing fee, which can eat into profits. According to Amazon, they handle these fees the following way: If you refund a customer for an order for which you have already received payment, Amazon will refund you the amount of the referral fee you paid for the item(s), minus the applicable refund administration fee, which is the lesser of $5.00 or 20% of the applicable referral fee.

For example, if you refund a customer the $10.00 total sales price of an item in a category with a 15% referral fee, your refund administration fee will be $0.30 ($10.00 x 15% referral fee = $1.50).

MFN/FBM Sellers:

MFN/FBM sellers manage their own returns and must directly handle refunds and restocking fees. The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that the cost to process a return for retailers averages around 17% of the original item’s price. This can be a significant burden, especially for small businesses.

2. Shipping Costs

FBA Sellers:

Amazon typically covers the cost of return shipping for FBA orders, which is then charged back to the seller through fees. For each returned item, Amazon retains no more than $5 as a refund administration fee.

MFN/FBM Sellers:

MFN/FBM sellers bear the full brunt of return shipping costs. Though good for consumers, offering free returns can be expensive. A Statista study found that the average cost of a return shipment is about $8.00, which can significantly impact profitability for high-value or bulky items.

3. Processing Costs

FBA Sellers:

The processing of returns, including inspection and restocking, is managed by Amazon. As stated earlier, Amazon retains no more than $5 as a refund administration fee per item. 

MFN/FBM Sellers:

MFN/FBM sellers must handle all processing tasks themselves. The burden of processing a return in-house includes labor, repackaging, and administrative expenses. This can take away from a significant portion of the item’s total value.

Indirect Costs:

1. Inventory Management

Returned items often need to be reintegrated into inventory, which can lead to additional administrative work and storage requirements. Managing this effectively is crucial to avoid stock discrepancies and potential losses.

2. Product Depreciation

Returned products, especially if they have been opened or used, often cannot be sold as new. They may need to be discounted as open-box or refurbished items, donated, or even recycled, reducing potential revenue.

Operational Challenges

Handling returns on Amazon presents numerous operational challenges for sellers. From logistical complexities to maintaining quality control and ensuring customer satisfaction, the return process requires careful management and strategic planning.

1. Logistics

Reverse Logistics:

Managing the reverse logistics of returns is complex and often more costly than the initial shipment. Coordinating the return journey, inspecting items, and deciding their fate (restock, refurbish, or dispose) requires a well-organized system. 

For FBA sellers, Amazon’s established logistics network handles the reverse logistics for FBA returns. This reduces logistical burdens at a minimal cost. MFN/FBM sellers must manage their own reverse logistics. 

Quality Control:

Ensuring that returned items meet quality standards before they are resold is vital to maintaining customer satisfaction. This process involves detailed inspections and, sometimes, repairs, which can be resource-intensive.

Amazon performs quality checks on returned items. However, sellers may not have direct control over these processes. Alternatively, MFN/FBM sellers have full control over the quality inspection process. 

2. Customer Service

Handling Complaints and Queries:

Dealing with return-related customer service issues, such as handling complaints, providing return instructions, and processing refunds, demands significant time and effort from customer service teams.

Maintaining Customer Satisfaction:

While returns are a part of online shopping, how they are handled can greatly affect customer satisfaction. Efficient and hassle-free return processes can build trust and loyalty, while poor handling can lead to negative reviews and loss of customers.

Impact on Brand Reputation

When it comes to brand reputation on Amazon, the impact of returns cannot be overstated. Various factors, from consumer perception to sustainability concerns, play a crucial role in shaping how a brand is viewed by its customers.

Consumer Perception:

Return Policies:

With the above said, it should come as no surprise that a generous return policy can enhance a brand’s reputation, making customers feel more confident in their purchase. However, overly lenient policies can be exploited, leading to increased returns and associated costs.

Negative Reviews:

Poor return experiences often lead to negative reviews, which can significantly damage a brand’s reputation on Amazon. Negative feedback can lower a product’s rating, reducing its visibility and attractiveness to potential buyers.

Customers Frequently Return or Keep this Item

Return-related badges on Amazon significantly impact a brand's reputation. A "Frequently returned item" badge can erode trust, decrease sales, and damage brand perception due to perceived quality issues. Conversely, a "Customers usually keep this item" badge enhances trust, boosts sales, and positively influences the brand image by signaling high customer satisfaction and product reliability.

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Sustainability Concerns:

The environmental cost of returns is significant, involving additional transportation emissions and often leading to wasted products. Brands that are seen as contributing to this waste may face backlash from environmentally conscious consumers. Efficiently managing returns in a way that minimizes waste and environmental impact is becoming an essential aspect of corporate responsibility and brand image.

Strategies to Mitigate Return Costs

While returns are an inevitable aspect of online selling, proactive strategies can significantly reduce their frequency. Here are some ways you can minimize returns: 

Voice of the Customer (VoC) Feedback Monitoring

Amazon's "Voice of the Customer" (VoC) feedback monitoring helps sellers reduce return costs by analyzing customer feedback to spot recurring problems, enhancing product descriptions and images, and pinpointing any customer service failings. This, in turn, enables the company to implement quick fixes, effectively manage customer expectations, and reduce the number of future returns.

Amazon’s Product Lifecycle Support Program

By ensuring quality product launches, offering continuous product performance data, and helping brands handle inventory, Amazon’s product lifecycle support program helps brands proactively manage any road bumps they may have in their journey, preventing issues before the product reaches the customer’s hands. 

Enhanced Product Descriptions and Detailed Information:

Providing accurate and detailed product descriptions can help reduce returns caused by unmet expectations. High-quality images, videos, and comprehensive specifications ensure customers know exactly what they are purchasing.

Customer Reviews and Q&A:

Encouraging customer reviews and facilitating a Q&A section can help potential buyers make informed decisions, reducing the likelihood of returns.

Quality Assurance:

Implementing stringent quality control measures can minimize returns due to defective or substandard products. Investing in better manufacturing processes and materials can result in fewer returns.

Product Testing:

Thoroughly testing products before they reach the market can help identify potential issues that could lead to returns. This proactive approach can save costs and protect the brand’s reputation.


The costs and consequences of Amazon returns can be substantial for sellers. By understanding the financial impacts, operational challenges, and reputational risks associated with returns, brands can develop effective strategies to mitigate these issues. Enhanced product descriptions, improved quality control, and balanced return policies are crucial for managing returns efficiently. Ultimately, a well-handled return process can transform a potential setback into an opportunity to build customer trust and loyalty, ensuring long-term success in the competitive landscape of Amazon.

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