Gift returns: Which retailers make the grade?

About $219.1 billion worth of merchandise is expected to be returned this year according to the National Retail Federation. Of that, $47.1 billion worth of stuff will come back to stores during the holiday season. With seasonal sales expected to be the worst in decades, 11% of retailers say they are going to loosen their return policies, more than triple the number from a year earlier. Making it easier to bring back unwanted goods could make companies more vulnerable to fraudulent returns, but that's a risk the companies are willing to take given their declining sales.

"Even though many chains intend to be less restrictive in enforcing return policies to the letter, don't expect them to start posting signs to trumpet any change in policy," writes Tod Marks, a blogger for Consumer Reports. "Retailers aren't about to relinquish their right to review on a case-by-case-basis any return that clashes with the store's written policy."

Not all return policies are created equal. Some companies are far more flexible than others which important to for shoppers to remember. Rules about specific types of merchandise are available on the Web site of most retailers. A valid receipt is needed for a full refund.

Store: Macy's
Policy: Allows customers to return goods within 180 days of purchase;
Fine Print: Company tracks good through stickers, enabling sales people to look up receipts for customers who have lost them, according to spokesman Jim Sluzewski;
Grade: A -- policy is generous and flexible.

Store: Kohls
Policy: Shoppers with an original receipt are eligible for full refunds or an even exchange. There is no time limit for returns.
Fine print: Customers without receipts and those with gift receipts will be granted an even exchange or Kohl's merchandise credit for returned items.
Grade: A -- policy is quite generous when compared with rivals.

Store: Barnes & Noble:
Policy: Returns are accepted at stores with an original receipt for cash refund or a gift receipt for the money to be returned as a gift card;
Fine Print: No time limit is specified.
Grade: A -- policy is generous

Policy: Extended holiday return period for the holidays. "We understand that many customers like to order holiday gifts early," says its Web site. Refunds take about four weeks to process but in many cases may come more quickly.
The fine print: Computer refunds must be made within 30 days of purchase; Some jewelry orders and groceries can not be refunded.
Grade: B -- Policy is adequate, with a little extra flexibility for the holidays

Store: Toys `R' US:
Policy: Customers have 90 days from the date of purchase to return most items with a valid receipt, but only 45 days for video games, DVDs, software, consumer electronics, electronic toys such as radio-controlled cars and breast pumps;
Fine Print: A merchandise credit will be issued for items purchased from a baby registry provided the return policies are met.
Grade: B -- policy is above-average compared with rivals.

Store: GAP
Policy: Unwashed and unworn clothes can be returned within 90 days of purchase with a receipt;
Fine print: Refunds without receipts will be issued in the form of a merchandise certificate.
Grade: B -- policy is just above adequate

Store: Wal-Mart
Policy: Most items can be refunded with a receipt within 90 days of a purchase (repair service is available through individual manufacturers).
The fine print: Sales of guns and ammunition are final.
Grade: C -- policy seems to just meet consumers' needs

Store: Borders
Policy: Consumers with a receipt can get refunds within 30 days of purchase; 60 with a Borders gift card.
Fine Print: Periodicals such as magazines and newspapers and digital downloads are not returnable.
Grade: C -- return policy is fairly standard.

Store: PetsMart
Policy: Spokeswoman Jessica Douglas said it has made some changes recently to the policy, including requiring a valid ID for any return without a valid receipt and Merchandise Return Card for any return without a valid receipt.
Fine print: There now is a mandatory 10-day wait period for any product originally purchased with a check.
Grade: C -- policy adequately serves customers

Store: Home Depot
Policy: Returns with valid receipts for 90 days from purchase, with the caveat: "We empower our store managers to do what is right for our customers, and the exercise this discretion at the store level every day," said Sarah Molinari, a company spokeswoman;
Fine Print: Custom-made products and custom-tinted paint can not be returned.
Grade: C -- policy meets industry standards

Store: Returns with valid receipts accepted up to 90 days from purchase, 30 days for gasoline-powered equipment;
Fine print: Major appliances with defects will be replaced within 7 days.
Grade: C -- policy is comparable to Home Depot.

Store: Target
Policy: Standard refund with receipt within 90 days of purchase, but as a bonus, the store can look up receipts for consumers who have forgotten them. "We do make it easier for guests that way," said spokesman David Fransen. .
Fine print: A receipt is required for ALL returns. It makes an exception for the return of two items (up to $35) per year without receipt.
Grade: C- -- The policy on non-receipt returns is very limiting.
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