Reading the fine print on retailer's return policies

Holidays are all about food, family and receiving gifts that you know you will never use -- with a smile. Of the $437.6 billion consumers plan to spend this holiday season, $42.7 billion worth of items are likely to be returned to stores, according to retail trade association, the National Retail Federation.

But this year, the annual pilgrimage to the return counter may prove a little less satisfying. Last year, the bad economy and gloomy sales forecasts led retailers to loosen up return policies, but 2009 is shaping up to be quite different -- 15.9% of retailers say they are tightening the rules,according to the NRF.

That makes reading the fine print on return policies even more important. Here's our roundup of retailers' return policies and our assessment of which ones are naughty or nice.

Policy: Most items can be returned for a full refund through January 31, an extension of Amazon's regular policy which limits returns to within 30 days of delivery. Return shipping is paid by the buyer unless the item is faulty or an error was made by Amazon. There are exceptions to the standard policy with more limited return windows for such products as computers, electronics, the Kindle e-reader, jewelry and items from individual sellers.

How its changed from last year: The time period in which items can be returned has been extended under this special holiday return policy that wasn't available last year.

Pros: The site makes downloading return labels and notifying sellers simple. New holiday rules are helpful for gift items.

Cons: Different policies for different items can be confusing, and the inclusion of independent sellers further clouds the matter. Check policies carefully before buying.

Barnes & Noble

Policy: Full refunds for in-store purchasesatany time with a receipt. Online orders only have a 14-day window for returns. Those items can be returned to the store or shipped. The new electronic reader, the Nook, also has a 14-day return window. Gift receipts are refunded with a gift card of equivalent value.

Pros: In-store purchases are easy to return, as long as CDs and DVDs are still shrink-wrapped.

Cons: Different rules for online and in-store purchases can be confusing, and the 14-day return limit for the Nook as a holiday gift is incredibly restrictive.

Policy: Returns must be made within 30 days of purchase with the original receipt for a full refund. Those with gift receipts receive merchandise credit within 60 days of purchase.

Pros: A pretty standard and straightforwardpolicy.

Cons: Online purchases returned to stores receive merchandise credit only.

The Gap
Unworn items can be returned within 30 days of purchase with a receipt. Online returns are entitled to refunds within 45 days from the time of purchase. Buyer pays a flat shipping rate of $6 per order.

How it's changed from last year: Last year, shoppers could return unworn items with a receipt up to 90 days after the purchase. Now, they only have 30 days.

Pros: Returns with receipts are simple.

Cons: The brief return window for holiday gift items. Without a receipt, shoppers only receive merchandise credit for the item's current price.

Home Depot
Policy: Many items can be returned within 90 days from the original date of purchase for a full refund if they are unused or in like-new condition. Returns without a receipt will result in merchandise credit. Exceptions include custom paints, tinted items and utility trailers.

Pros: Items returned after 90 days are good for merchandise credit.

Cons: Loads of restrictions and exceptions make returns confusing. Items bought online cannot be returned to stores and buyer pays return shipping.

JC Penney
Policy: The store accepts returns for a full refund within 90 days as long as you have the original receipt. Those with gift receipts receive a refund in the form of a store gift card. Without a receipt, but bought within 90 days, the amount of the refund will be based on the lowest on-sale price within the last 30 days and will be issued as a merchandise credit.

Pros: No restocking fees. Online purchases can be returned to the store.

Cons: According to the company, "selected categories are subject to additional criteria or limits to the return policy."

Policy: Kmart offers full refunds within 90 days of purchase as long as the consumer has the original receipt. Online orders can be returned at stores. Exceptions include autographed collectibles, personalized items and any opened software, CDs, computer games, DVDs and videos

Pros: Most items qualify for a full refund or exchange.

Cons: Shipping for online returns is paid for by the customer if the product is not damaged or defective.

Policy: Shoppers with an original receipt are eligible for full refunds or an even exchange. There is no time limit for returns.

Pros: Generous and flexible. Items purchased on can be returned or exchanged in stores.

Cons: Purchases made with Kohl's Cash Coupons may have a decreased value.

Policy: Returns of most items are accepted within 90 days of purchase with a receipt. Outdoor power equipment, however, must be returned within 30 days of purchase with a receipt. Returns without a receipt can be made within the 90-day window for a store credit as long as the consumer shows a valid ID.

Pros: Online orders can be returned to stores within the same period with receipt.

Cons: Shipping fees are non-refundable unless the return is due to errors or damaged or defective items.


Policy:Allows customers to return goods within 180 days of purchase. Gift stickers attached to items at the time of purchase let sales staff track receipts and issue refunds.

Pros: In-store returns and exchanges are simple, and the six-month window is generous.

Cons: Online purchases can be returned at a store, but store purchases cannot be returned by mail. Some items, such as jewelry, have shorter return windows of just 30 days and sales of gourmet or food items are final. Check the fine print on the store's return policy for unusual and larger items, like home furnishings.

Policy: Special holiday policies cover items purchased between November 1 and December 31 within 30 days of the delivery date or by January 31, 2010 -- whichever date occurs later.

Pros: Printing return labels and tracking orders is relatively simple.

Cons: A long list of non-returnable items includes large screen TVS (bigger than 37"), perfumes and fragrances, and some specially-labeled designer apparel, handbags and accessories.

Policy: Full refunds for returns with receipt, as long as they are made within 60 days of thepurchase. Merchandise credit is issued for returns beyond this window. Credit is also given to those without a receipt except for certain items, including electronics (collars, fencing and training items), grooming tools, filters or pumps, and pet medication or vitamins when they cost more than $10. Stores accept online items for a full refund.

Pros: Petsmart accepts returns of items purchased at other retailers, even competitors, with the original receipt for merchandise credit or exchange.

Cons: Receipts are required for most returns and those attempted without a receipt require a valid ID.

This site serves as the online storefront for all Gap brands including the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, plus the Athleta brand of active wear and Piperlime's own online selection of apparel shoes and accessories. One storefront for so many brands leads to complicated return policies. Most items from the Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy can be returned online or in the appropriate store within 45 days of purchase. Returns to Athleta and Piperlime are by mail only, within 45 days of the order date. Return shipping is a $6 flat fee per order.

Pros: In-store return options help reduce shipping costs for the three retail brands with a physical presence (Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic).

Cons: Some items bought online are not eligible for store returns and will be marked as such. Online merchandise returned to stores is for merchandise credit only.

Policy: Stores offer full refunds or exchanges on certain products returned within 90 days. Electronics, customized jewelry and mattresses must be returned within 30 days. Video games, CDs and DVDs must be unopened in order to be eligible for a refund or exchange.

Pros: Online orders can be returned at stores.

Cons: A 15% restocking fee is charged on opened electronics, mattresses, built-in home appliances and special orders.

Policy: Shoppers receive a full refund with a receipt for up to 90 days after the purchase. Some electronics returns come with a 15% restocking fee. Returns without a receipt are accepted but can only total $70 within a year. Exchanges without gift receipts are accepted with a balance credited on a gift card.

How it's changed from last year: Shoppers can return up to $70 worth of merchandise this year without a receipt. Last year, they could only return $35 worth of items.

Pros: Easy in-store returns for online and traditional purchases.

Cons: Returns without a receipt are limited and can be confusing, given the annual $70 total.

Toys R Us
Policy: Full refunds for items with a receipt up to 90 days after purchase,but the window shrinks to 45 days for certain electronics, movies, collectibles, video games and gaming accessories.

Pros: Online purchases can be returned in the store, with a receipt.

Cons: Shoppers need to read the rather detailed list of non-returnable items carefully.

Policy: Most items can be returned for a refund within 90 days as long as you have a receipt. Walmart is also extending the return period for items that are typically limited to 15- or 30-day returns like computers, TVs, cameras, DVD and music players and electronics. Such items that are purchased between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25 will be able to be returned during a 30-day period that begins Dec. 26, regardless of when the item was purchased.

How its changed from last year: This year, Walmart is offering a new extended window of time to return items that are typically limited to a 15- or 30-day window.

Pros: Special holiday rules make returns and exchanges easier than the store's standard policy.

Cons: Returns with a gift receipt are for merchandise credit only, cash refunds or credit back to a card are only given to the original purchaser with the receipt.

Return any item up to a full year for a full refund. Free shipping for purchases and returns.

Pros: A 365-day return window, free shipping. What more can you ask for?

Cons: None
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