Even before a single present had been exchanged, nearly one in five Americans — nearly 40 million people — say they expect to return at least one gift they receive this holiday season. If you’re one of them, here’s what you need to know before getting on line:
• You’ve got time. A recent survey by the National Retail Federation suggests that many retailers will be adhering to more generous merchandise return policies during the holiday season than for the rest of the year. In general, expect most retailers and Web sites to waive their usual deadline for product returns, typically a week to 30 days, and give you until Jan. 31 to seek a refund. Amazon.com, for example, says products purchased as early as Nov. 1 are eligible for extended return privileges. If you’re unsure of a specific store policy, examine the bottom of your receipt or check the store’s Web site.
• You’ll need a receipt. Despite longer grace periods, many retailers are tightening return policies. Merchants have in the past been fairly generous in taking back goods without a gift store or gift receipt — offering shoppers who can’t produce documentation at least store credit for the lowest price the item sold for — but now we’re seeing more chains say they won’t take anything back without a receipt. Last spring, we reported that if you try returning something to Target without a receipt, two separate policies apply. There’s the retailer’s posted 90-day return policy and then there’s its unwritten return policy. According to the posted policy, you’re simply out of luck if you don’t have a receipt and Target can’t verify the purchase through its electronic “receipt look-up” system, as might be the case if you paid cash or received the item as a gift.
But for items costing up to $35, there’s another “hidden” option that you won’t see. Customers can get store credit, provided they show a driver’s license or other government-issued identification and haven’t already used this option twice during the year. Make sure you understand a store’s entire policy. For online returns, you’ll need a packing slip (typically included in any gift order) and return authorization number. When giving a gift, keep all original packaging and tags.
• You’re being watched. Return fraud will cost retailers an estimated $11.8 billion in 2008 and $3.54 billion during the holiday season alone. Shoplifting – particularly organized criminal behavior in which groups of people pilfer goods and then try to bring them back for a refund -- has prompted some major retailers to implement computerized return authorization systems to help them decide whether to deny your return. The systems take into account factors such as how much time has elapsed since your last return, the number of items you’re returning, the dollar value of the goods, as well as your overall return history, whether you have provided receipts in the past, and the number of stores you’ve sought returns from.
• Clear your good name. If your return is denied and you don't know why, you may have been incorrectly flagged by a store's computer for committing "return fraud." You might be able to correct the matter by e-mailing the Retail Equation (formerly known as The Return Exchange), a company that monitors returns for many retailers, at ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com.
• Think twice before opening that package. Merchants can’t resell as new any item after the box has been opened, so they penalize you for doing so. Such policies for electronics gear like camcorders, TVs, digital cameras, and computers have been around for a long time, and typically range from 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price. Special orders, if they can be returned at all, may also be subject to restocking fees. Our advice: Don’t open the package if you don’t want what’s inside. Items like computer software, music CDs and movie DVDs aren’t generally returnable for another title after the seal has been broken. Some stores, though, will give a partial refund.
• Know where to return it. If you bought an item online and the merchant has a brick-and-mortar counterpart, check the Web site to see if you can take back the merchandise to the store and avoid repackaging, a trip to the post office, and shipping fees. For example, you can return merchandise bought from Macys.com to any Macy’s store, but don’t try doing it the other way around. Conversely, Sears will take back any merchandise bought online from Land’s End’s Web site and vice versa. (Sears owns Lands’ End.)