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Retail industry's dirty little secret -- destroying returned purchases

A regular Victoria's Secret shopper, Marie Wolf brought an unworn pair of "Pink" brand sweatpants back to the store at Westshore Plaza a few weeks ago, and planned to buy something else.

The clerk happily gave her a refund, then took a pair of scissors and started cutting the pants in half.

"I was shocked, because, mind you, these were $70 sweatpants, and there's nothing wrong with them," Wolf said. "The clerk just said, 'I know, but it's our policy.' "

Outraged, Wolf confronted a store manager, then called the parent company and found, indeed, Victoria's Secret does cut up some returned items so they can't be resold -- even if they're in fine condition.

Apparently, the clerk's only mistake, Wolf said, was to cut up the clothes in front of customers, and not in a back room out of sight.

"I asked about donating them to Salvation Army, what about Goodwill, what about all the people who lost everything in the tsunami?" Wolf said. "I told them I won't ever shop with them anymore, and neither will anyone in my family."

Officials with Victoria's Secret owner Limited Brands declined to comment about their return policy and procedures. And they're not the only big retailer that destroys some items that customers return.

The fast-growing fashion retailer H&M, which plans a store in Tampa, was recently caught up in controversy after students found Dumpsters full of cut-up clothes behind stores in New York City.

And while Macy's Inc. tries to put new-condition items back on the shelf for resale whenever possible, company officials confirmed some other items are destroyed.

While cutting up perfectly good clothes may appall customers like Wolf, retail experts say the practice keeps cropping up and remains a dirty little secret in the retail industry.

Destroying any returned clothes isn't illegal, though it definitely is not a standard practice among retailers, said Suzanne Long, retail practice leader at the consulting company SSA & Company.

Target officials say they donate much of their returned items to charitable groups on a pre-approved list.

Of course, a retailer may not want to risk any health issues with items like bras or panties, Long said, but retailers may harbor other motivations for destroying outerwear as well.

"Sometimes you don't want items going out for resale on the secondary market at all," Long said. "Some stores may take last season's golf clubs and bend them in half so someone couldn't easily pick them from the trash and resell them."

And some clothing designers may tell a retail store that sending back the clothes is not worth the money, "and if the retailer feels it's unsalable, they'll just agree to go ahead and destroy it."

The H&M fashion retailer was recently caught up in a scandal after students in New York City found bags of slashed clothes in dumpsters behind a Manhattan store on at least two occasions. H&M officials said it was not their standard practice, and going forward would make sure to donate any returned items that can't be sold in stores.

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