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Returns: Watch out this holiday season

Mannequin staring at shopper's shopping bag.
Many stores are getting stricter, primarily by employing computerized systems to track and limit returns.
Illustration 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 you’ve 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 company’s 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 wouldn’t 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, it’s up to the retailer to clear your good name.

The bottom line is it’s 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 driver’s license or other photo ID when you return an item. If you don’t comply, your return may get rejected.

Of the major retailers that we called, the ones that don’t 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 six months.

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.


Will it help to preempt returns by persuading friends and family members to give you gift cards? Not necessarily. If you get a Talbot’s gift card and Old Navy is more your style, you’re 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 you’ll 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 these tactics:

Act fast. After the wrapping paper is off, it’s a race against the clock to beat store-return deadlines. So check store policies as soon as possible. They’re often spelled out on receipts, on a sign in the store near the register, or on the merchant’s Web site. If the item was purchased online, check the retailer’s site and pay special attention to the cost of shipping the gift back. You’ll probably have to cover postage yourself, and you won’t 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 Santa’s 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 item’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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, don’t 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 store’s customer-service desk.

If you’re giving, remember cash is the gift that never gets returned

But if crisp bills don’t cut it, shop for gifts that are easily returnable and avoid those that aren’t, such as most final-sale and monogrammed items, underwear, and evening wear. Before you make your gift purchases, ask about a store’s return policy at the register or find it at the retailer’s 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 won’t have trouble returning your thoughtful bauble.


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