Behind the e-commerce giants, the incredible business of parcels is returning

They were waiting for it! For many merchants, “Black Friday” has become that meeting of the year. This commercial wind coming from America carries consumers along in a bulimia of purchases carried by welcome promotions in this period of inflation. It’s even a blessing to prepare for the holidays, as according to a study by the Federation of e-commerce and distance selling (Fevad), 70% of French people use Black Friday to anticipate their Christmas shopping. At the French e-commerce leader, Cdiscount, everyone is on deck. “We have 20 million visitors a month, but for this single day we expect 5 million. Of the 20 million packages sent each year, we deliver 200,000 the day after Black Friday”, says someone at Cdiscount.

A major beneficiary of the Covid crisis, e-commerce has digested its accumulated billions over the past two years. And if the turnover of products and textiles falls slightly in favor of digital services (36 billion euros in cumulative turnover in the third quarter of 2022), 11,000 new e-commerce sites will still be created in 2021 in the country. But the “boxes” are also numerous to get back to the warehouses, because according to Fevad, 25% of the purchased products go back to the sender. Next to Mondial Relay and other Relais colis, at Colissimo, the subsidiary of La Poste, which will deliver 100 million parcels on its peak period winter (1/5 of its annual volume), Jacques Gregorcic’s team saw 23 million parcels pass on their way home last year. “In 2022, with our new home service, the postmen will even have collected 1 million parcels from French mailboxes”, confides the operations director of Colissimo.

Almost every other package is put back for sale on the spot

Defective product or unsatisfied customer, all returned packages will not be placed on the e-beams. At Cdiscount, the return rate is quite low (8% on average), but still represents 1.6 million parcels to be reprocessed on the platforms. “About 45% of returns are relisted on the site [NDLR : dont 5 % en occasion]we donate 20% to associations, and 35% are sold to discount stores”, we explain at the e-tailer, where we constantly wonder how these unsold items are valued.

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It must be said that the management of returns is a money pit. On a product sold for 100 euros on the Internet, the business will make a margin of between 20 and 30 euros. But the acquisition of a customer can cost him up to 10 euros (marketing, reduction…), and return transport 5 euros. If we add the administration and handling costs, there is not much left in the pocket of the grocery store. “To sell the product on, you have to add costs. We can therefore say that they are working with a loss of return”, confides a specialist in the industry. That is why e-traders are trying to recreate the value of these stocks. They can thus go through bailiffs or auction houses to sell the goods. But they are increasingly turning to “cyberdestockers”, companies that set up an auction system for pallets of packages, via marketplaces exclusively B to B. A market estimated at 5 billion euros in France.

Simon Vancoppenolle, the founder of Stocklear, in a warehouse in Tournai, Belgium.

Simon Vancoppenolle, the founder of Stocklear, in a warehouse in Tournai, Belgium.

Sébastien Pommier // L’Express

The world leader in this new sector is called B-Stock, which sold 143 million products in 2021 in the US and is arriving in Europe. Disney, Unilever, Amazon… 9 of the top 10 global retailers are customers. “We allow businesses to convert inventory to cash in just two weeks. With the growth in fast fashion, there is a huge amount of waste in this industry, with practices such as burning unsold goods. We offer a more sustainable option to give new life to their inventory,” explains Jessica Morris, European Marketing Director of B-Stock.

These destructions of products, Amazon has made the bitter experience. The NGO Friends of the Earth identified the e-commerce giant’s practices in 2018. Almost 300,000 new items (Playmobil boxes, Lego, diapers, etc.) would have been thrown away in three months at its warehouse in Chalon-sur-Saône, according to a report issued in January 2019 i Capital, the news magazine M6. However, since January 1, 2022, the Anti-Waste and Circular Economy Act (known as Agec) obliges manufacturers, importers and distributors to recycle or recycle unsold non-food products. That’s why the calls are getting more and more for Simon Vancoppenolle, a Belgian 30-year-old who has established his start-up in Roubaix.

Warehouse for warehouse buyers

Arriving at the foot of the old historic building of the mail order company La Redoute with its faded brick facade can confuse more than one visitor. Nevertheless, it is on this 13,000 square meter plot that a new nugget of French technology has emerged, which has quickly become an essential part of e-commerce. Stocklear means nothing to you? Normally, this young company (15 employees) only works with companies. It mediates between returned products from online retailers and discount specialists, small shops that resell products at low prices.

Pascal Federico, the manager of the Eco Electro clearing shop in Lomme near Lille.

Pascal Federico, the manager of the Eco Electro clearing shop in Lomme near Lille.

Sébastien Pommier // L’Express

“We store the goods in warehouses all over France, then we open the auctions for two days. When they are over, we collect the money and pass the funds on to the seller. Along the way, we take a commission on the operation.” , explains the founder of Stocklear, which wants to become the European leader in the sector.

A few kilometers away, in Tournai in Belgium, Simon Vancoppenolle takes us to a warehouse where he has just received hundreds of washing machines, refrigerators, televisions… An Ali Baba’s cave! “Do you see so many air conditioners? I didn’t think it would go so quickly. Everything is sold out, regardless of the seasons,” breathes the entrepreneur. If he remains discreet about his suppliers, he is the delight of discounters such as Pascal Federico, the boss of Eco Electro, based in Lomme in the Lille suburbs. “These auctions are 20% of my supply. It allows us to reach products from big brands at knockdown prices,” he explains. Damaged cardboard, small apparent defect, the stock taker, who on average will have bought at 40% of the starting price, will resell it at 20%. For him as for his colleagues, it is Black Friday all year round.


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