After all the carols are sung and eggnog consumed, Americans this weekend will be indulging in a more modern — and growing — holiday pastime: returning unwanted gifts. Many shoppers, if they give it any thought, assume those ill-fitting sweaters and unloved blenders will go right back onto store shelves.

But returns, an increasing headache for retailers, are spawning a huge industry of middlemen, technology firms and discount sellers dedicated to figuring out what to do with all those goods. The weeks after Christmas are their busiest time. Last year, $284 billion worth of merchandise was returned in the U.S., according to the Retail Equation. That’s up 6.2% from $267 billion in 2013.

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