© 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Purpose – The distribution literature provides support for examining product returns from a customer-based perspective. Based on this need, the purpose of this paper is to identify the underlying causes of product returns based on a survey of 308 Wal-Mart and Target customers who engaged in product returns. Design/methodology/approach – Structural equation modelling was used to verify and test the relationships examined. Findings – It was found that dissatisfaction with a product results in an emotional dissonance that is positively related to product returns. Two primary reasons for return were examined, the expectation of the customer not being met and the customer finding a better product or price. Both reasons for return were found to influence the frequency of returns. It is also reported that gender, but not store brand moderated these relationships. Males had higher levels of product dissatisfaction and subsequent emotional dissonance than females. Males however did not have higher rates of return than females. Originality/value – The research provides new knowledge in the management of retail returns by identifying their underlying causes as well as specific reasons for returns. This knowledge can assist managers in identifying the behavioural influences on product returns and in developing methods to minimize those returns.