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2 resellers go on a treasure hunt to find returned goods they can flip for profit

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Shoppers are returning more of the things they buy than ever before. But lots of those goods don't make it back to their original shelves. Many end up at bargain bin stores, where resellers comb through piles of returns in search of items to flip for profit. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, of our Planet Money podcast, followed one such enterprising duo to learn the ropes.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When I first meet Asalyn Spencer (ph) and Makayla Ridgeway (ph) outside the Treasure Hunt bin megastore in Raleigh, N.C., they tell me the first lesson of the return reselling business - everyone else is competition.

Does everybody, like, rush in at the same time? Or...

ASALYN SPENCER: Oh, yeah. They all run. And they push. They shove. They throw stuff. It's a battlefield in there, literally.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today, a couple of competitors have beat them to the front of the line, so they're going to have to be strategic. Asalyn and Makayla use binoculars to spot treasures amidst the piles of returned goods inside. They then draw up a map and plan out little plays, like a football coach.

SPENCER: OK. Possibly, one of us going to go after the blender. And the other will go after, like, the NuWave air fryer over here or the smokeless grill back there.

MAKAYLA RIDGEWAY: Depending on where they go in front of us.

SPENCER: Yeah.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lesson No. 2, they tell me, is to zero in on the trendiest consumer items of the moment, things they can buy for the store's flat rate of $10 and sell for much more online. They got into this a couple of years ago, Makayla explains, when weighted blankets were all the rage. Then it was air fryers, then massage guns.

RIDGEWAY: And then the next week, it will feel like everyone has one. And so then we have to move onto a new item and get that. And then it just repeats

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: As the last minutes ticked down before the doors open, it starts to feel like one of those World War I movies, when all the grim-faced soldiers are lined up in the trenches waiting to run into no man's land. Until finally, it's time. We're inside. This looks like an air fryer.

Oh, yeah. We've got a big air fryer. It's in a bin.

Inside the store, it's a sensory overload. There are bright fluorescent lights, pounding pop music. It's like a little retail zombie apocalypse to the tune of "Shape Of Your Body." It's like "Supermarket Sweep" meets "Mad Max."

Wow. I almost got run over.

RIDGEWAY: Did you get knocked down (laughter)?

SPENCER: Robo vacuum.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, nice. Robo vacuum. You're not going to get that pet drinking fountain?

SPENCER: I'm not sure.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lesson No. 3, stay on task. Asalyn and Makayla only grab things they can sell for 30 bucks or more. They even check prices online right before they checkout. If the price it can sell for is too low, they won't buy it.

SPENCER: I think we might put the weighted blanket back because they're kind of hard to sell right now.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You're turning your back on your bread and butter?

SPENCER: I know. I know.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They spend about $160 each week and on average, earn about $800, enough for them to pay their tuition at nursing school. I ask Asalyn and Makayla if they ever get tired living in this constant flow of returned gadgets and price fluctuations. And Asalyn tells me she dreams about not coming back almost every week.

SPENCER: But then were like, what if they put it out, you know, something really good and we miss it? You feel like you're going to miss something if you don't go.

RIDGEWAY: So it's like the Powerball...

SPENCER: You know, you play nonstop. And then that one time, you don't play.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Does it feel like an addiction kind of?

RIDGEWAY: Yes.

SPENCER: It is definitely addiction.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Looking around as we check out at the piles of returned goods that might never find a second life, it's hard not to wonder about this system we've created where it's so easy to return things, the costs have basically been swept under the rug - which reminds me, maybe I should buy a robot vacuum.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUFF DADDY'S "LAMBORORRI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).