By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com
Gift giving and receiving is complicated and emotional. While the rising popularity of store gift cards and prepaid cards has lessened the worry about returns in the post-holiday frenzy, there often remains one present that doesn't warm your insides like the others. Or, you've received the same item twice because two relatives know you all too well. Regardless, deliver a big, heart-felt "thank you" and then figure out how to return or exchange the present.
There's often nothing special about gift returns and exchanges at this time or year. Cheapism's return guide, which examines the return policies at 22 online and retail stores, shows only seven with special holiday return policies. Vendors that change their policies, such as Amazon, Sears, Target, and Walmart, often do so in a way that benefits shoppers. Most allow purchases made between the beginning of November and the end of December to be returned through the end of January; others simply start the return period on December 26.
With some retailers, such as Best Buy, which shortened the return period to 15 days from 30 earlier this year, the holiday policy is much appreciated. But stores without a special holiday return policy may be just as easy to deal with. Nordstrom, for example, has been a consumer favorite since accepting the return of a set of tires during the 1970s at its Fairbanks, Alaska location despite the fact that it did not, and never has, sold tires. Another long-time favorite among shoppers, REI, recently changed its return policy from a lifetime, no-questions-asked to a time-bound, but still relatively generous, one-year return period.
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Most stores require a receipt or gift receipt for returns, or an invoice/packing slip if the purchase was made online. Many are also able to look up a purchase that was made within the past year with the credit card that was used for the purchase, but this is not always possible or appropriate with gifts. Gift returns are almost always paid out in the form of store credit or exchange. One big exception is Walmart, where store purchases within the past 90 days can be returned without a receipt. Items valued at less than $25 can be returned for cash while those costing more must be exchanged for a replacement item or gift card; only three such returns can be made during a 45-day period.
You Better Watch Out. Consumers also need to be wary of the potentially pricey "restocking fee," which sometimes reaches 50 percent. Such charges often apply only to large, bulky items or products that have been opened. Macy's, for example, charges a 15 percent restocking fee for furniture purchases and Amazon charges up to 50 percent for CDs, DVDs, video games, and some other items that have been opened.
Several retailers, including H&M, also separate online and offline operations and do not accept returns at physical stores of gifts bought online. In other words, the recipient may have to pay return shipping either upfront or as a deduction from the credit received for the return. Cheapism's guide shows which retailers offer free shipping for returns, a list that includes only Zappos, GAP, and Amazon (for some items). L.L. Bean offers free return shipping to people with the L.L. Bean Visa card, and Macy's and Foot Locker also offer free return shipping for exchanges.
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A final warning before the holiday returns crush. Many retailers track customers' returns and have the right to deny a return if there is reason to believe the policy is being abused. Much of the tracking is handled by a company called The Retail Equation, which works with major retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy. Although the intent is to snare shoppers who arouse suspicion by, say, using or wearing an item and then returning it, sometimes the innocent are caught in the crossfire. Last holiday season one shopper who had brought in several returns and taken advantage of the price-matching policy in the recent past was told he could not return a Christmas gift given to his daughter by someone else that was accompanied by the original receipt. Apparently he was deemed to have made too many returns and temporarily added to the "blacklist."
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