Monday, December 21, 2009

Consumer Reports: Avoid Return Gotchas Before Buying a Gift

/PRNewswire/ -- Even the most fool-proof gifts are subject to returns. In fact, 19% of people plan on returning a gift after the holidays, according to a recent Consumer Reports poll. But returning items may not be as easy or affordable as in years past. Holiday headaches will last long after the season is over, as return shipping costs, restocking fees and other gotchas prevail.

Most retailers have perfectly reasonable return policies, but some are better than others, according to Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks. "With so many stores selling the same or similar merchandise, where you buy can almost be as important as what you buy," said Marks, who pens the "Tightwad Tod" shopping blog on "However, there is good news: Most big retailers will generally accept returns on merchandise purchased between November and Christmas through the end of January."

Hassle-free return tactics

Because even the best gifts don't always fare well with recipients, it's best to be prepared before the purchase is made. Check privacy policies and terms of agreement, not just the returns section of a retailer's site. Consumer Reports also recommends shoppers should:

-- Get a receipt or gift receipt. Despite longer grace periods, retailers
are becoming more insistent on a receipt in order to get a refund, and
they're more inclined to turn away customers without proof of
purchase. Without a receipt, they may offer a store credit for the
lowest price the item sold for.
-- Keep packaging intact. Stores are likely to refuse a return if the
packaging materials are open or discarded. Even a missing instruction
manual, cords and cables or warranty card can give retailers reason to
deny the return.
-- Be wary online. Don't just throw it in a box and mail it back. Online
returns usually require a packing slip (typically included in any gift
order), and a return authorization number. Call ahead to ensure that
all requirements are being met.
-- Don't break seals or cut out UPC codes. Items like computer software,
video games, CDs and DVDs aren't generally returnable for another
title after the seal has been broken. If an item comes with a rebate
offer, make sure it works before removing the UPC code to redeem the

Don't get stuck paying restocking fees

A restocking fee is a fee imposed on a consumer who returns an item. It covers the cost of processing the return, the costs associated with returning the item to the store's shelves, and any lost revenue as a result of the store's inability to sell that item as new. More products carry a restocking fee if the package has been opened, but if the item is defective before it's used, the store should not charge a restocking fee.

Typically fees range from 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price. Items more likely to have restocking fees include camcorders, TVs, digital cameras, and computers; however Consumer Reports found some not-so-hot returns policies that harbor a variety of restocking fees, including:

-- 15% restocking fees for computers and fine jewelry.
-- Best Buy: 15% restocking fees on laptops, camcorders, digital cameras
and GPS navigators.
-- 15% restocking fee on all items. Plus shoppers have only 15
days to return items.
-- Sears: 15% restocking fee applies to electronics products returned
without the original box, used, and without all of the original
packaging. The penalty also applies to some other products.
-- Home Depot: special-orders and some cancelled orders are subject to a
15 percent restocking fee.
-- Macys: 10% restocking fee on furniture.
-- 15% restocking fee on all major purchases if the box is

The bottom line when it comes to restocking fees: Don't open the package unless there is no possibility of a return.

The best policies

Consumer Reports scanned various policies at a number of notable retailers and found the return period ranged from 30 days to as many as 180 days. Standout retailers to make Consumer Reports' list for best policies include Bed, Bath & Beyond, Bloomingdale's, Costco, Ikea, Kmart, Kohl's, Lowe's, Nike, Nordstrom,, Sam's Club, and

Some chains offer exemplary policies year round including Orvis, LL Bean, Land's End, and Zappos. All four retailers will take back unwanted merchandise, no questions asked. Zappos gives you a year to decide and asks that the goods be returned in their original packaging and condition. The others simply say you can return anything at any time for any reason.

Major retailers: what to expect

Wal-mart allows for 90 days for a full refund, except for electronics (it's 15 to 45 days depending on the gadget). Target grants 90 days for a refund with a receipt (some electronics have a 15% restocking fee). An even exchange is offered without a receipt, up to $70 worth of merchandise within a year.

Sears has a 90-day refund or exchange policy for most goods, 30 days on electronics, customized jewelry and other items including mattresses. Macy's has a number of limitations on items from furniture to jewelry.

Online retailers like and have strict limitations on what can be returned. For example, Amazon does not allow computers to be returned after 30 days and Overstock doesn't accept returned TVs over a certain size.

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