It’s safe to say that consumers don’t routinely scrutinize return policies until after they’ve gotten a good look at that gosh-ugly sweater or realized their new coffee maker doesn’t fit under the cabinet. But with so many stores selling the same or similar merchandise, where you buy can be almost as important as what you buy.
With fraudulent returns projected to cost stores $2.7 billion this holiday season, a recent National Retail Federation survey reveals that 17 percent of companies are penalizing all consumers – by imposing stricter policies -- for the actions of the bad apples. However, 80 percent of retailers surveyed said their return policies remain unchanged from a year ago. Only 4 percent admitted loosening their policies.
Overall, there’s good news this time of year. During the holiday season, most chains make it easier for consumers to return unwanted goods. One in four retailers in the NRF survey said their return policies are more flexible during the holidays than they are the rest of the year. Indeed, most big retailers will generally accept returns on merchandise purchased between November and Christmas through the end of January.
Even so, some chains offer exemplary policies year round. Who wouldn't want to shop at a store that's willing to take back unwanted merchandise no questions asked? There are a few of them including Orvis, LL Bean, Land's End, and Zappos.
Zappos pledges to take back anything you’re not completely satisfied with for whatever reason for one year, and return shipping is free. The only requirement: return the goods in their original packaging and condition. Orvis, Land’s End, and LL Bean have unconditional guarantees,too, and take it one step further by eliminating the deadline. You can return anything at any time. However, return shipping isn’t always free. LL Bean, for example, provides free return shipping only to its Visa card holders. And you can’t return Land’s End merchandise bought at Sears (Land’s End’s parent company) to Land’s End’s Web site, although online purchases can be returned to any Sears store.
Don't expect such generous terms at mainstream stores. In general, most policies are a mishmash of rules that treat different products in different ways. But there’s a common thread among them. They require:
• A receipt or gift receipt. Despite longer grace periods, retailers are becoming more insistent on a receipt in order to get a refund, and they’re more inclined to turn away customers without proof of purchase. With a receipt, you’ll typically be entitled to a full cash refund. If you paid by cash and lack a receipt, the best you can hope for is a store or merchandise credit for the lowest price the item sold for.
• Intact packaging. Stores are likely to refuse a return if you’ve discarded the packaging materials or removed the warranty cards, or instruction manual. For online returns, you’ll usually need a packing slip (typically included in any gift order) and return authorization number.
• Labels and tags. If you cut off or otherwise remove tags on goods like fine jewelry or fancy clothes, it could void a return. Similarly, items like computer software, video games, recorded CDs and DVDs aren’t generally returnable for another title after the seal has been broken.
In addition, more products carry a restocking fee if the package has been opened. 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.
To give you an idea of how policies differ, we scanned those of a number of notable retailers. The return period ranged from 30 days to as many as 180 days. Here’s a snapshot:
Sears has a 90-day refund or exchange policy for most goods, 30 days on electronics, customized jewelry, motorized scooters, electric bicycles and mattresses. Sears won’t take back video games, CDs, and DVDs that have been opened. Despite the 30- and 90-day time limits, the chain says it will consider accepting returns beyond the deadline on a case-by-case basis. A 15 percent restocking fee applies to electronics products returned without the original box, used, and without all of the originalpackaging. The penalty also applies to some other products.
Radio Shack offers a 30-day money-back guarantee on most products (90 days for defective goods). Exclusions include opened software, non-defective computer games, DVDs, and other software. Items bought at stores can’t be returned online, though the opposite usually is OK.
Walmart allows returns for up to 90 days on most products, 45 days for computer peripherals, and 30 days for camcorders and digital cameras. The period is much shorter for computers, GPS systems, and MP3 players, at 15 days. Apparel, shoes, and accessories, must be returned unworn, with tickets attached and accompanied by the original invoice. Books, movies, software, and video games must be returned unused.
JC Penney will refund your purchase price for 90 days if you have a receipt. Without a receipt, you still get 90 days, but in the form of a merchandise credit for the lowest "on sale" price within the last 30 days. Interestingly, you can’t return furniture bought at a JC Penney store once you’ve taken delivery. But online or catalog furniture purchases can be returned within 7 days. The return period for fine jewelry, small electrics (like shavers and toasters), electronics, and major appliances is 60 days with an original sales receipt. Special-occasion desses must be returned in their original condition with the return tag in place. .
Home Depot also allows returns on most items for 90 days with a receipt, as long as they're in “unused, like-new” condition. The return period for gasoline-powered equipment is 30 days. Special-orders and some cancelled orders are subject to a 15 percent restocking fee. Homedepot.com purchases can’t be returned to a Home Depot store.
Target, too, has a 90-day return policy for new and unused items in their original packaging. Most Target.com purchases can be returned to a Target store. Music, movies, video games, software and collectibles cannot be returned if opened. Gift cards, prepaid cell phones, prepaid cards (including music, game and phone cards), or other items that carry financial value cannot be returned.
Macy's is among the most generous department stores, giving customers 180 days to return most items. There's a 30-day limit on jewelry. There's a 10 percent restocking fee on furniture returns. Food and gourmet gifts are not returnable. Most online purchases can also be brought back to any store, but not the other way around.