Claudia Buck

Personal Finance: Don’t want it? How to return that holiday gift, without a hassle

Published: Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014 - 12:16 am

Staring at some unwanted, wrong-sized or just plain what-were-they-thinking holiday gifts? Even if it’s just a pair of mittens or a blender you know you’ll never use, it’s probably not too late to exchange or return it. But don’t procrastinate.

Consumer experts say more stores are “slicing and dicing” their return policies, which means you may have more weeks to return a pair of PJs, but fewer days left to exchange that new computer or video game.

And in some cases, retailers will not issue any refunds, even with a receipt, on certain electronics and big-ticket items, like large-screen TVs.

“People don’t realize that some retailers have changed their policies,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a Boston-based consumer site that produces an annual survey of return policies by 12 major retailers. “There’s been a general tightening of return policies over the years … and a trend toward categorizing,” offering different deadlines for returning different types of merchandise.

He said three chains – Best Buy, Sears and Toys R Us – have shortened their holiday return windows this year, meaning you have two weeks to a month less time to return that Juice-O-Matic or electronic gizmo. For Best Buy, the return cutoff is Jan. 15 for items purchased in November; for Toys R Us, it’s Jan. 25 for general merchandise, but only until Jan. 9 for certain electronics. (For a chart of some retailers’ policies, go to ConsumerWorld.org.)

Overall, 28 percent of retailers changed their holiday return policies this year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.

Some of the changes are intended to thwart fraudulent returns, which the NRF estimates was an $8.76 billion headache for retailers in 2013. Nearly half that fraud amount – $3.39 billion – hit stores during the holiday season, including counterfeit receipts, return of stolen goods and “wardrobing,” where consumers try to return clothing or merchandise (after it has been worn or used) by passing it off as new.

To make your gift returns easier this season, here are a few rules of the road:

Returns 101

Bring the receipt. “Try to bring some proof of purchase. Tags on an item aren’t enough,” said Dworsky. If you have a gift receipt, you’ll likely get store credit or the ability to exchange or return it. Without a receipt, you’ll be lucky to get the lowest price it recently sold for, not necessarily what the giver paid for it.

“Typically, stores tend to be more generous with returns for anything bought from November through Christmas,” said Tod Marks, a senior editor with ConsumerReports magazine. “But you have to know what’s excluded, what’s included and whether you’re subject to a restocking fee,” he said.

If you don’t have a receipt or are trying to return something beyond the store’s stated deadline, use diplomacy, says Dworsky. “A lot of it is about tone, your voice. You can’t be demanding if you’re asking for a favor.”

But if what you’re requesting is within the store’s policies but you cannot get satisfaction, be “a little more aggressive,” he said, such as asking to speak with a store manager. Just remember to be firm, but keep your tone civil.

Know the policy

Before you show up at the customer counter, call, go online or read your paper receipt to check the store’s return policy. “They’ve gotten so long and more complicated. No wonder consumers are confused,” said Dworsky, who said this year’s survey of return policies for 12 major retailers was about 11 pages longer.

Many stores become more lenient this time of year, stretching their return policies on most items (but typically not electronics), giving customers until mid-to-late January for gifts purchased between November and Christmas. Others, like Target, keep a 30-day policy, but don’t start counting until the day after Christmas – Dec. 26.

Don’t open it

If you’ve received pricey electronics, computers, software, cameras, etc., don’t slice open the packaging if you’re planning to return it. Some stores, like Best Buy or Fry’s, can be picky if you’ve opened the package.

“If you’ve broken the seal, you’ve bought it,” Marks said. And certain items, primarily big-screen TVs, “are often ineligible for returns. Period.”

Eyes on you

Be aware that more stores are tracking their customers’ patterns of returns. It starts when you get asked for a photo ID when you’re making a return. Doing so, says Marks, allows stores to collect data on your return history: Multiple returns in a certain time frame. Returns without receipts. Number of stores where you’ve sought returns. How long since your last return.

For most people, it’s not a problem. But if you get flagged, you might find you’re temporarily denied the ability to make a return. “Your return privileges might be suspended for 90 days, if your pattern doesn’t pass muster,” Marks said. He said companies rarely state these policies explicitly, but they’re definitely in use.

According to The Retail Equation, an Irvine company that provides retailers with data analysis of customer returns, the process is designed to identify fraudulent or abusive behavior involving a small minority of customers.

“The 1 percent of consumers who get denied (return privileges),” its website says, “exhibit return behaviors that mimic fraud or abuse or exhibit habits that are inconsistent with the retailer’s return policy.”

But in some cases, Marks said, perfectly legitimate consumers can still have their return privileges curbed if they fall into categories that are deemed suspicious. If you believe you’ve been flagged unfairly, contact the company by letter (The Retail Equation, P.O. Box 51373, Irvine, CA 92619-1373) or email: ( ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com).

Online returns

Some stores will waive shipping fees when you’re returning something bought online, by providing customers with a prepaid shipping label. Also, check and see if you can return an online purchase to a brick-and-mortar store, rather than pay shipping fees to mail it back to the warehouse. Stores like Macy’s, Target and REI honor that policy.

The online retailer with the most-generous return policy? Land’s End, says Marks, which lets customers “return anything at anytime,” even items that were hemmed or monogrammed.

FedEx/UPS returns?

If you were caught up in the late-December avalanche of online gift buying, what was ordered might not have arrived by the “guaranteed” Dec. 25 delivery date. Both FedEx and UPS were surprised by a last-minute deluge of online purchasing that delayed their ability to deliver in time for Christmas. “Both have an on-time guarantee, but there’s a lot of weaseling,” said Dworsky. For instance, the wording may exclude guarantees for ground shipments between Dec. 15 and Christmas, the last 10 days of the holiday, “which doesn’t do consumers any good,” he said.

If your purchase arrived later than promised, it might be worth complaining or seeking a refund.

“Whoever made the promise of guaranteed delivery by Christmas, that’s who you need to contact,” said Dworsky, who noted that some stores, like Kohl’s, are giving out $25 gift cards to customers whose purchases didn’t arrive on time.

Overall, the first weeks of January can be an ideal time to wade back into retail stores with your returns, a period when clerks aren’t so harried and the waves of post-holiday bargain hunters have long gone.

“Chances are you’re not out of time, at least through the end of January,” Marks said.

Call The Bee’s Claudia

Buck at (916) 321-1968 or

read her Personal Finance columns at www.sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

Read more articles by CLAUDIA BUCK



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