How to Shop Smart so You Can Return Almost Anything

If you return items the right way, there's no need to worry or feel guilty.If you return items the right way, there's no need to worry or feel guilty.

Make sure you can take it back -- without too much fuss -- by following these steps from the get-go.

"These jeans are too tight."

"Looks like I bought the wrong adapter."

"Hmm, now that I see this up close..."

We've all been there: You bag what you believe is a pretty terrific purchase, only to discover that it needs to go back to the store. How do you deal with that successfully -- even when you've, ahem, already worn that pair of shoes or misplaced your receipt? Use the "W" system: Know where to shop for the best return policies, what you need to have and do to get a refund, and when you should do it. Use these tips to make the process as painless as possible.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Credit Card Hacks

Where to buy:
I'm addicted to some retailers simply because they have easy return policies (though these are often subject to change). Here, some of the best:

  • Athleta: This store's "Give-It-a-Workout Guarantee" lets you try your purchase and return it (even if it's gotten sweaty!) with no time restrictions if it doesn't perform. Contrast this accommodating policy with the "return it unused and unworn within 30 [or 45, 60, or 90] days" rules of other retailers owned by the same parent company: Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Piperlime.
  • Costco: This mega retailer has a longer-than-usual window -- 90 days -- for returning electronics and no time limits for most other merchandise. Nice!
  • CVS: The drugstore chain allows you to bring back all store-brand items for a full refund --including ones that are already opened and used -- as long as you have the receipt. The store extends the same policy to all beauty items it carries, even non-CVS brands.
  • Kohl's: They will take back any product, at any time, for any reason.
  • L.L.Bean: Similarly, this clothing retailer lets customers return anything at any time, even if worn or used.
  • Nordstrom: Stores will accept returns anytime, regardless of whether an item has been worn, and provides free shipping. I put this to the test when I bought boots online when pregnant with my daughter. They sat in the box as I waited for my swollen feet to shrink; I ended up returning the unworn -- but still too small -- boots four months after my baby was born, and I got my money back. (The policy is different for Nordstrom Rack stores, which have a 30-day return window.)
  • Zappos: This online retailer is known for its fuss-free returns, offering free shipping.

Remember: It's best to know a retailer's return policy before you shop. Check websites or consumerworld.org to compare rules.

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What to bring:
If you live in fear of losing a receipt, relax. For some, the days of "no receipt, no return" are over.

  • Target: They can now verify a purchase made in the last 90 days, provided you made it with a check or a debit, credit, or gift card (be sure you can produce the gift card you used).
  • Macy's: They can look up the electronic version of your receipt up to two years after your purchase if you used the store's charge card.
  • Lowe's: Their customer service can also find receipts for most transactions.

To make future returns easier, ask if receipts can be e-mailed to you (no more worries about misplacing them!). Since Apple stores began this practice in 2005, other retailers (Nordstrom and Best Buy among them) have followed suit. Reluctant to share your personal e-mail address? Set up a separate account for anything shopping-related.

When to go:
If buying a new PC or front-loader washer, know that electronics and appliances typically have the shortest window for, and more restrictions on, returns. At Target, most purchases have a 90-day return window, but some (including laptops, tablets, cameras, and video game hardware) must be returned within 30 days. Sears allows 30 days for returns of electronics, large home appliances, and fine jewelry, but has 60- and 90-day windows for other merchandise.

If you're having trouble returning an item that's defective (or that was misrepresented), you can ask your credit card company to investigate and help you get your money back. Keep in mind that debit cards don't carry the same assurance, so when making a big-ticket purchase, use your credit card.

Related: The 10 Worst Money Mistakes You Can Make

A few words of warning:
PayPal is a popular way to transfer funds, but using it may limit your return options with some retailers: For example, though Target provides cash for in-store returns of items purchased online, you'll receive only store credit for online returns. Know this before you shop so that returns won't be any more frustrating than they have to be.

Some retailers charge "restocking fees" when certain items are returned. Sears adds a 15% fee on returns of electronics and some appliances if they've been used. Amazon may charge a fee of up to 20% for items returned 30 days after delivery; this fee can go up if products are not in their original condition.

- By Carmen Wong Ulrich

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