Returns: Watch out this holiday season
stores are getting stricter, primarily by employing computerized
systems to track and limit returns.
by Bob Eckstein
You may chuckle now over the ugly holiday sweater your Aunt Edna
sends you each year, but you could be in for a rude surprise when
you try to take it back to the store, even if youve been
shopping there for years.
Each year at holiday time retailers examine their return
policies and make changes based on their experiences with their
customers, says Joseph LaRocca, vice president of loss prevention
at the National Retail Federation, a trade group.
Many stores are getting stricter, primarily by employing computerized
authorization systems to track and limit returns. The goal is to
curb fraudulent returns, although innocent consumers can easily
get snagged by these systems.
You can also get tripped up by store return rules that vary from
retailer to retailer as well as within the same store. The rules
at a store may change depending on the time of year, the type of
item, and the method of payment.
big brother at the register
Many big retailers, including Home Depot, Barnes & Noble,
and Wal-Mart, now use proprietary software systems to monitor return
behavior. These retailers are usually quiet about how they use
the data, but Wal-Mart announced in 2004 that it began using its
return-tracking system to alert cashiers to customers who bring
back more than three items without receipts within 45 days. Those
customers must get a manager to approve their returns.
More than a dozen other retailers, including Express, K-B Toys,
Sports Authority, and Staples, use the Return Exchange, which maintains
return-tracking databases for stores. The companys system
automatically instructs cashiers to reject returns when customers
bring back items too often or for too much money. The Return Exchange
would not tell us exactly how many returns cause your name to get
blacklisted, saying it varies by retailer. The retailers we interviewed
wouldnt give us a number, either.
But the Return Exchange assured us that if your return behavior
gets you blacklisted, the company will send you a copy of your
file if you ask for it. You can then check for mistakes and request
corrections. Ultimately, though, its up to the retailer to
clear your good name.
The bottom line is its best to avoid frequent returns, especially
at stores that use a tracking system. To find out whether a store
uses the Return Exchange you can look for signs near the register
announcing the service or ask a salesperson. Stores that use the
system scan your drivers license or other photo ID when you
return an item. If you dont comply, your return may get rejected.
Of the major retailers that we called, the ones that dont
use the Return Exchange and have liberal return policies include
Costco and Nordstrom. Both retailers allow you to return any item
any time, although Costco recently limited computer returns to
Other companies with virtually unlimited return policies include
L.L. Bean and Lands End, although you may have to pay about
$6 to ship an item back. Most of the retailers we called limit
returns to 30 to 90 days for the majority of store merchandise.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Will it help to preempt returns by persuading friends and family
members to give you gift cards? Not necessarily. If you get a Talbots
gift card and Old Navy is more your style, youre out of luck.
Most stores will not refund a gift card. You may be able to squeeze
some cash out of a card, but most likely youll have to spend
most or all of the money in the store. The Gap, for example, will
give you up to $5 in cash left on a card. So instead of talking
up gift cards to avoid return troubles this holiday season, try
Act fast. After the wrapping paper is off, its a
race against the clock to beat store-return deadlines. So check
store policies as soon as possible. Theyre often spelled
out on receipts, on a sign in the store near the register, or on
the merchants Web site. If the item was purchased online,
check the retailers site and pay special attention to the
cost of shipping the gift back. Youll probably have to cover
postage yourself, and you wont get a refund for shipping
fees paid to send the gift out to you. Restrictions also may vary
depending on the type of item you receive. Furniture bought at
JCPenney, for example, has to be back within 7 days of delivery
for a full refund, but if you were lucky enough to get a gift from
the electronics or jewelry department you have 60 days. Keep in
mind that during the holidays the store-return clock may start
ticking after Santas visit instead of on the date of purchase.
Best Buy, for example, treats all purchases made between Nov. 1
and Dec. 24 as if they were bought on Dec. 24.
Open at your own risk. If you think you might return an
item, resist the temptation to snip off the tags or tear apart
any plastic packaging. Electronics retailers such as Best Buy,
Circuit City, and Apple may charge a 10 to 15 percent restocking
fee on certain products if the box is opened before the item
is returned, unless it is defective. Amazon.com will take
off a whopping 50 percent of the returned items price if
a CD, DVD, or software package is opened or a book has obvious
signs of use. Barnes & Noble will flat-out reject CDs and DVDs
without the wrappers. Retailers that dont charge a fee if
items have been opened include JCPenney and Costco.
Talk turkey. If possible, give the Aunt Ednas in your life
strong hints about what to get you this year. That way you can
avoid returning items to their favorite stores so often that you
end up getting blacklisted--and getting stuck with that purple
turtleneck with the sequin-encrusted reindeer applique.
Keep your receipts. If you dont get a gift receipt
with your present, ask for the original receipt. Many stores allow
returns without receipts, but you may have to settle for an exchange
or store credit, generally based on the lowest price the item sold
for, which may be a lot lower during post-holiday sales.
Speak up. If you have trouble returning an item, dont
waste time arguing with the cashier, who may not have the power
to negotiate. Instead, ask to speak with a manager or talk to a
representative at the stores customer-service desk.
If youre giving,
remember cash is the gift that never gets returned
But if crisp bills dont cut it, shop for gifts that
are easily returnable and avoid those that arent, such
as most final-sale and monogrammed items, underwear, and
evening wear. Before you make your gift purchases, ask about
a stores return policy at the register or find it at
the retailers Web site, keeping in mind that it may
be more lenient around the holidays. And consider buying
from stores with the most liberal return policies, such as
Costco. Finally, be sure to slip a gift receipt in the box
so your friend, relative, or co-worker wont have trouble
returning your thoughtful bauble.