In a recent poll, almost one in five Americans told us that they expected to return at least one holiday gift. Most return policies are more lenient than they were before the recession, according to a National Retail Federation study, but some companies have fought fraud and abuse with stricter policies. For hassle-free returns, read the current fine print (policies are a moving target) and review these tips:
1. Know the time frame
Big merchants usually allow 90 days for returns of most items but might have far shorter periods for home and personal electronics, software, and CDs and DVDs. During the holidays, retailers sometimes extend deadlines. Electronics bought at Walmart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days, for example, but if a gift was purchased between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25, the clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26.
2. Keep gift receipts
Many merchants used to offer at least store credit to shoppers without one. Nowadays, more turn those people away. If you didn't get a gift receipt with a product you want to return, you may be out of luck, unless you're prepared to ask the giver for the receipt.
3. Take your driver's license
Some companies, including Best Buy, require a government-issued ID with a receipt. (That way, they can track serial returners even if the transaction is in cash.)
4. Be sure before you open the box
Merchants can't resell an item as new after the package has been opened, so they impose a restocking fee, often 15 percent of the product's cost. The fees apply mostly to electronics, but Sears also charges for mattresses, built-in appliances, and special orders on hardware, sporting goods, and other merchandise. Items such as computer software, CDs, and DVDs aren't generally returnable once they're unwrapped. It might also be hard to return products with damaged packaging or missing tags.
5. Know where to go
If an item was purchased online and the merchant has walk-in stores, check the website to see whether you can return it at a store and avoid repacking, a post-office trip, and shipping fees.