Retail theft makes the honest customer work harder

WalletPop has been reviewing return policies at many of the largest national retail chains this holiday season. We've done updates on what's changed since last year, what's new just for the holidays, and which stores have the best or worst return policies of the season. And given the number of comments after each of these pieces, it's clear that WalletPop readers have a bone, or several bones, to pick with retailers.

To put it in the colloquial, people are pissed off.

You've had returns refused, refunds delayed, reduced or given in-store credit only. A good many of these gripes are legitimate. People are caught in bureaucratic red tape and trying to reason with tired, crabby or inefficient seasonal help. Some folks are upset they can't return everything, at any time, for whatever reason.

Blame it in part on tightened policies due to an increase in retail theft. According to a global study by Checkpoint Systems, approximately $46 billion in merchandise was stolen from U.S. stores this year. It's tempting to blame the recession, and in part we can. But it's not individual consumers shoplifting to clothe their kids, but organized crime rings stealing popular items and selling them online or returning them to stores for cash.

A survey by the National Retail Federation had 93% of retailers saying stolen merchandise has been returned to their stores in the past year, up from 90% in 2008. Nearly 75% of retailers say they've gotten returns of merchandise purchased with stolen or counterfeit tender and 43% report getting fake receipts.

This kind of fraud used to be rare. But with more stolen merchandise being returned to stores for refunds, retailers are trying to make it harder for thieves to profit. That's one reason receipts and photo IDs are increasingly required for returns.

For the honest person, returning items to a store is a pretty straightforward proposition. As long as it's a fairly recent purchase and in new condition, a store should take it back. Keep receipts or pay with a credit card. Some retailers can look up a purchase by scanning the card, eliminating the need for a paper receipt. Review our list of best and worst return policies and check back with a retailer's web site to stay up to date, as policies can change.

The best days to go to a store are Tuesdays. Crowds are light, employees have recovered from the weekend, and stores are clean and fully restocked. Policies are in place for reason, but there are always exceptions. Ask to speak to a supervisor or store manager if you think you qualify for one. It's a rare policy that can't be gotten around with a smile and kind word.
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