Receive an awful gift? Return policies now tighter

by Herb Weisbaum,

holiday-returns-smallIt’s almost here — the after-Christmas rush to return unwanted presents.

Most stores try to make it easy for you to get a refund. Many have special holiday policies that give you extra time to bring things back.

But a few big-name retailers have tightened up the rules a bit this year. “We’re finding that more and more stores are dividing up their return policies, so certain types of goods have different rules,” said Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “And if any type of merchandise is going to have a stricter policy, it’s going to be electronics and appliances. We see relatively short return periods for these things as compared to other items, such as clothing.”

Consumer World found shorter return periods at three major retail chains:

  • Best Buy shortened its holiday return period by nine days (now Jan. 15 instead of Jan. 24). The store had already cut its regular return period in half (from 30 days to 15 days) for most customers back in March. Special orders are no longer refundable.
  • Sears shortened its regular return policy for major appliances and vacuums from 60 to 30 days, and excludes them from its extended holiday return period.
  • Toys R Us introduced an extended holiday-return period for most items until Jan. 25, but shortened the return window (from 45 to 30 days) on certain electronics purchased on or after Nov. 1. The deadline for returning cameras, camcorders, digital audio players, video game hardware, DVD players or no-contract cell phones given as Christmas gifts is Jan. 9.

Consumer World found that most online retailers will allow you to return items to their brick-and-mortar stores. That could save you a return shipping charge. “Sports Authority is one of the few stores that says something bought online cannot be returned to the store. You have to send it back to the dotcom,” Dworsky said.

Remember, allowing returns is a customer service and not required by law, unless the merchandise is defective. In some states, the store is allowed to replace a defective item, rather than provide a refund. Some stores have a no-return policy. Others will only provide a store credit. Some notable policies:

  • will not take back any TV that’s 37 inches or larger.
  • Amazon no longer accepts returns on jewelry without all the required documentation.
  • Office Max will not give refunds on any product that it no longer stocks.

Restocking fees are on the decline, but some stores still charge them — typically 15 percent — on electronic products when the box is opened and the factory seal has been broken. But there may be a restocking charge on other items.

  • Macy’s has a 15 percent restocking fee on furniture and mattresses.
  • Amazon charges a 50 percent restocking fee on open DVDs and CDs and 20 percent for late returns.

Most stores require all returned items, unless defective, to be in new or like-new condition, in the original packaging, with all paperwork and accessories to ensure full credit.

Fighting fraud
Retailers want to accommodate legitimate returns, but they’re battling an epidemic of return fraud that will cost them an estimated $8.76 billion dollars, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

A significant portion of those losses, $3.4 billion, take place during the holiday season. Based on its 2013 Return Fraud Survey, the NRF estimates that nearly 6 percent of holiday returns will be fraudulent this year, up from 4.6 percent last year. The survey also found that 14 percent of the returns made throughout the year without a receipt are fraudulent.

To fight this crime wave, most stores (74 percent) now require picture ID if you want to return something without a receipt. Another 12 percent require ID even from customers who have a receipt.

It’s always been smart to bring a sales slip when you try return or exchange something. That way you’ll get the full price that was paid for the item. Without a receipt, you may get the most recent sale price, if the store will even accept the return.

“It’s absolutely reasonable to expect the customer to prove that the item they’re trying to return came from that store, when it was purchased and at what price,” Dworsky said. “Return fraud costs all of us in the long run.”

Consumer World has compiled a detailed list of return policies at more than a dozen major retailers.