The Rules...of returning holiday gifts

According to a recent report by, a thorough and terrific consumer advocacy web site, the rules on returning gifts are getting a little more lenient. Eleven percent of stores are loosening their policies.

On the other hand, the rules are getting stricter, too. ConsumerWorld -- which got its numbers from the National Retail Federation -- says that 17% of stores are putting more strict rules in place.

Still, the takeaway from all this is that it's a good idea to know the store's return policies if you think there's any chance you may want to return a gift, or if you're giving a present that you're not sure how it'll be received.

Some of the standout information in the ConsumerWorld report includes:
  • Circuit City has extended its holiday return deadline to January 31. It used to be that everything needed to be returned by January 25 and what they call "14 day items," like electronics (think: computers, cameras) had to be returned by January 8.
  • Sears allows most products bought between November 16 and December 23 to have a 120-day return period. The exceptions are electronics, beds and software.
  • But Best Buy, which used to allow things to be returned up to January 31, now asks everything to be returned by January 24. Computers, however, have to be returned within 14 days from the purchase day, and that, of course, could complicate matters if you bought a computer for someone back in, say, early December.
I went poking elsewhere around the net and found a few other stores and their policies.
For what it's worth, though, in case you get irritated at the retailers for having specific days you need to return gifts by (except for Kohl's), you'd be better off being ticked off at the thieves in this world. Return fraud will cost an estimated $11.8 billion in 2008, and over $3 billion of that will come from the holidays, according to Consumer Reports.

The stores are forced to come up with rules and stick by them. Some chains are even hooked up to computer systems that will tell them if a shopper is abusing the system and returning items constantly. For instance, JC Penny requires that special occasion outfits -- like a fancy dress -- be returned with the tags on them, to keep people from wearing an item out to a wedding and then bringing it back to the store.

In any case, no matter what you do, if you're going to return an item, make sure you have the receipt. And even better, if we want to really make things less complicated -- let's all agree to like the gifts we receive this year.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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