If I buy a shirt from a physical store — say the local boutique in my town — and I regret my purchase and return it to the store the next day without ever having worn it, is the item resold as new or “refurbished”? I think most of us assume that the returned item will be given a once-over and will be refolded or rehung, as if it had never left the store.

What about online returns? If I buy that same shirt from an online store. If I get that same feeling of regret after the purchase. If I return that same item — never worn — in its original packaging back via the reverse logistics process, will it be sold as new or refurbished? Here our instincts tell us: refurbished.

So what’s the difference between the two paths if both returned items are in identical “new” condition.

Time: The returned online purchase takes longer to get back to the shelf. This process can take days or weeks as compared to just minutes in the offline store.

Handling: The returned online purchase is handled by an average of six people before it can be resold. As opposed to in an offline store in which the item may be handled by one person — who may be the very same person who sold the item to you in the first place.

Distance: The returned online purchase travels by land, air and sea — sometimes all of them — going through multiple destinations, centers and facilities, before it makes it back to the online store shelf; as opposed to an offline return which travels the distance from the buyer’s last location back to the store.

So time, handling and distance, seem to be factors in determining whether something can be deemed new or not. But what about omni-channel stores? If you buy from an online store and then return the purchase to its local brick-and-mortar branch does the status”refurbished” still apply? Or can we assume that these offline stores do a rudimentary check and return these items to the shelf, as if they had always been there? In this scenario the factors of time, handing and distance (and all ensuing costs) are rendered moot. The journey of the returned item remains between the omni-channel store and the buyer. No external parties are involved. No one needs to know that the returned item was “temporarily” out of commission.

At the end of the day, if the returned item is in the same quality and condition when it it is returned to both online and offline stores, why should the status be different depending on whether you are returning to an offline store or an online store?

It seems that if you are a pure play online store you have the short end of the stick. Not only is the returns process more expensive, longer and requires more handling, but also, by the time the item gets back to the online shelf, it will need to be sold for less than the original asking price, on account of the fact that it is not “new”.

Perhaps the real question is — if we can’t change the designation of never-used, pristine returned online products from “refurbished” to “new” for whatever reason — be it legal or otherwise— then, how can we provide pure play online stores an omni-channel experience, so that they too can benefit from offline facilities without laying a brick? Maybe by doing this, they too can get the product faster to the shelf, and faster to the hands of a new shopper.

Want to hear OtailO’s plan for online product returns? Let’s talk