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As Inventory Piles Up, Liquidation Warehouses Are Busy
PITTSTON, Pa. — Once upon a time, when parents were scrambling to occupy their children during pandemic lockdowns, bicycles were hard to find. But today, in a giant warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, there are shiny new Huffys and Schwinns available at big discounts.
The same goes for patio furniture, garden hoses and portable pizza ovens. There are home spas, Rachael Ray’s nonstick pans and a backyard firepit, which promises to make “memories every day.”
The warehouse is run by Liquidity Services, a company that collects surplus and returned goods from major retailers like Target and Amazon and resells them, often for cents on the dollar. The facility opened last November and is operating at exceptionally high volumes for this time of year.
last month, some major retailers say shoppers are buying less clothing, gardening equipment and electronics and focusing instead on basics like food and gas.
Adding to that glut are all the things people bought during the pandemic — often online — and then returned. In 2021, shoppers returned an average of 16.6 percent of their purchases, up from 10.6 percent in 2020 and more than double the rate in 2019, according to an analysis by the National Retail Federation, a trade group, and Appriss Retail, a software and analytics firm.
Last year’s returns, which retailers are not always able to resell themselves, totaled $761 billion in lost sales. That, the retail federation noted, is more than the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Defense.
rising consumer prices and declining spending, the American economy is showing clear signs of slowing down, fueling concerns about a potential recession. Here are other eight measures signaling trouble ahead:
Consumer confidence. In June, the University of Michigan’s survey of consumer sentiment hit its lowest level in its 70-year history, with nearly half of respondents saying inflation is eroding their standard of living.
The housing market. Demand for real estate has decreased, and construction of new homes is slowing. These trends could continue as interest rates rise, and real estate companies, including Compass and Redfin, have laid off employees in anticipation of a downturn in the housing market.
Copper. A commodity seen by analysts as a measure of sentiment about the global economy — because of its widespread use in buildings, cars and other products — copper is down more than 20 percent since January, hitting a 17-month low on July 1.
Oil. Crude prices are up this year, in part because of supply constraints resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but they have recently started to waver as investors worry about growth.
The bond market. Long-term interest rates in government bonds have fallen below short-term rates, an unusual occurrence that traders call a yield-curve inversion. It suggests that bond investors are expecting an economic slowdown.
“You would think that there would be enough data and enough history to see that a little more clearly,” he added. “But it also suggests that times are changing and they are changing fast and more dramatically.”
Strong consumer spending may have saved the economy from ruin during the pandemic, but it has also led to enormous excess and waste.
Retailers have begun to slash prices on inventory in their stores and online. Last Monday, Walmart issued the industry’s latest warning when it said that its operating profits would drop sharply this year as it cut prices on an oversupply of general merchandise.
above a reclaimed strip mine dating back to when this region was a major coal producer. Today, the local economy is home to dozens of e-commerce warehouses that cover the hilly landscape like giant spaceships, funneling goods to the population centers in and around New York and Philadelphia.
Liquidity Services, a publicly traded company founded in 1999, decided to open its new facility as close as it could to the Scranton area’s major e-commerce warehouses, making it easy for retailers to dispense with their unwanted and returned items.
Even before the inventory glut appeared this spring, returns had been a major problem for retailers. The huge surge in e-commerce sales during the pandemic — increasing more than 40 percent in 2020 from the previous year — has only added to it.
The National Retail Federation and Appriss Retail calculate that more than 10 percent of returns last year involved fraud, including people wearing clothing and then sending it back or stealing goods from stores and returning them with fake receipts. But more fundamentally, industry analysts say the increasing returns reflect consumer expectations that everything can be taken back.
burned in incinerators that generate electricity.
stock price plummeted nearly 25 percent in one day. Other retailers’ share prices have also fallen.
Target’s stumbles have been an opportunity for people like Walter Crowley.
Mr. Crowley regularly rents a U-Haul and drives back and forth to the liquidation warehouse from his home near Binghamton, N.Y.
Understand Inflation and How It Impacts You
Mr. Crowley, who turns 54 next month, focuses mostly on discounted home improvement goods, which he resells to local contractors, like multiple pallets of discontinued garage door openers, tiles and flooring.
But on a sweltering day earlier this month, he stood outside the warehouse in his U-Haul loading up on items from Target.
“I saw its stock got tanked,” said Mr. Crowley, a cigarette dangling from his mouth and sweat pouring down his face. “It’s an ugly situation for them.”
He bought several cribs, a set of sheets for his own house and a pink castle for a girl in his neighborhood who just turned 5.
“I end up giving a lot of it away to my neighbors, to be honest,” he said. “Some people are barely getting by.”
The buyers bid for the goods through online auctions and then drive to the warehouse to pick up their winnings.
It’s a diverse group. There was a science teacher who stocked up on plastic parts for his class, as well as a woman who planned to resell her purchases — neon green Igloo coolers, a table saw, baby pajamas — in the Haitian and Jamaican communities of New York. She ships other items to Trinidad.
The Pennsylvania warehouse, one of eight that Liquidity Service operates around the country, employs about 20 workers, some of whom have been hired on a temporary basis. The starting pay is $17.50 an hour.
Charles Benincasa, 39, is a temporary worker who has had numerous “warehousing” jobs, the most recent at the Chewy pet food distribution center in nearby Wilkes-Barre.
Mr. Benincasa said his friends and family had gotten in the habit of returning many of the goods they buy online. But as he’s watched the boxes pile up in the Liquidity Services warehouse, he worries about the implications for the economy.
“Companies are losing a lot of money,” he said. “There is no free lunch.”