Holiday Returns: What You Need to Know

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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 or a gift that you received twice because relatives know you all too well. Regardless, deliver a big, heartfelt "thank you" and then figure out how to return or exchange the gift.

There's usually nothing special about gift returns and exchanges at this time of year. Among the 22 retailers featured in Cheapism's 2013 guide to return policies, only eight have special provisions for the 2014 holiday season. Vendors that change their policies, such as Amazon, Sears, and Walmart, do so in a way that benefits consumers. Most allow purchases made in November and December to be returned through the middle or end of January; others simply start the return period on Dec. 26.

With some retailers, such as Best Buy, which shortened its return period to 15 days from 30 last 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 a Fairbanks, Alaska, location accepted the return of a set of tires during the 1970s despite the fact that Nordstrom does not, and never has, sold tires. Another longtime favorite among shoppers, REI, has changed from a lifetime, no-questions-asked policy to a time-bound but still relatively generous one-year return period.

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 made within the past year if a credit card was used, 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 should 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 up front or as a deduction from the credit received for the return. Some retailers do offer free shipping for returns; these include Zappos, Gap Inc., Macy's, Nordstrom, and Amazon (for some items). Some retailers also have requirements that must be met to qualify. L.L. Bean offers free return shipping to people with the L.L. Bean Visa card, for example, and Foot Locker offers free return shipping only for exchanges. In general, it's best to check on the retailer's help page or ask a representative before assuming return shipping is free.

A final warning before the holiday returns crush: Many retailers track customers' returns and have the right to deny one if there is reason to believe the policy is being abused. 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. Two holiday seasons ago, one Best Buy 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 that had been given to his daughter by someone else and was accompanied by the original receipt. Apparently he was deemed to have made too many returns and had been temporarily added to the "blacklist."

2014 Holiday Policy
AmazonItems shipped by Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 31.
Barnes & NobleItems purchased Nov. 17 to Dec. 31 can be returned or exchanged until Jan. 31.
Best BuyItems purchased Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 15.
GameStopItems purchased Oct. 5 to Dec. 24 can be returned until Jan. 15.
OverstockItems purchased Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 31. Returns must arrive at warehouse within 15 days.
SearsFor items purchased Nov. 9 to Dec. 24, 30-day return window closes Jan. 24; 60-day return window closes Jan. 24 or 60 days from purchase, whichever is later. Exclusions include major home appliances.
TargetFor electronics and entertainment items purchased Nov. 1 to Dec. 25, the 30-day return period begins Dec. 26. (For most other items, there's a 90-day window.)
WalmartFor items purchased Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, the 14-, 15-, and 30-day return periods begin Dec. 26.

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