As you're double-checking your holiday shopping list, tack on a reminder to read each store's return policy before making your purchase. Some retailers are feeling a little less generous when it comes to returns. That even includes REI, an outdoor gear and sporting goods retailer long known for its no-time-limit and no-questions-asked return policy.
The store recently trimmed its return window to one year, unless the merchandise is defective. To deter "wardrobing" -- the practice of buying, using and then returning a product (usually clothing) for a refund -- Bloomingdale's recently began tagging some of its apparel with conspicuous plastic tags. If a tag is removed, shoppers can't return the item.
Stingier policies are intended to combat return fraud. Last year, fraudulent returns cost retailers $8.9 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, $2.9 billion of which occurred during the holiday season. Reports of wardrobing increased 40 percent from 2009 to 2012, says the NRF.
Customers can expect tougher return policies to spread. "As retailers see competitors or stores with some of the most lenient policies tighten up, it's going to signal to them that they can do the same," says Phoenix retail consultant Jeff Green. "We're going to see a shift toward a shorter, 30-day return policy in 2014." Customers can also expect added scrutiny when taking back merchandise without a receipt.
Retailers want to identify the bad actors. To do so, some companies are gathering data on customers who return merchandise, watching for suspicious patterns and warning or denying repeat offenders. Clerks may ask for state-issued identification, such as a driver's license, before you can make a return. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Nearly 10 percent of retailers require ID for returns made with a receipt, and 73 percent require ID for returns made without a receipt. Some scan the ID into their own system; others send the info to a third party.
If you exceed a retailer's limit for the number of returns within a given time frame or for the value of returned products, you could be denied more returns for a period of time (typically 90 days). If you are given a warning or denied a return, the Retail Equation, a company that collects return information for 27,000 merchants in North America, will provide you with the information in its return-activity report over the phone. To request your report, visit www.theretailequation.com/consumers.
Despite the general trend toward Grinchier return policies, some retailers are giving shoppers a break during the holidays or when shopping online. Last year, 10 percent of retailers relaxed their return policies for the holidays, and similar promotions are expected this year. Lenient online return policies and acceptance of returns in stores for items bought online will likely continue. Look for free shipping for both purchases and returns, which Neiman Marcus debuted in October.
As policies shift, the key to hassle-free returns will be staying organized. The ReturnGuru app, free for iPhone and Android, lets you snap pictures of your receipts, then saves them and reminds you as the deadline approaches to make returns. The new rules may take some getting used to. But if you expect great deals, that's part of the trade-off.
We're not saying you should give up shopping on Black Friday altogether. Just do it online instead.
At one point it may have been true that Black Friday was for in-store deals, while Cyber Monday was for the e-commerce set. But these days, retailers are taking pains to offer a seamless experience between their online and bricks-and-mortar channels, and that means many of the marquee Black Friday deals can be had from the comfort of your couch. "[Retailers] continue to get better at syncing the online and offline experience," says Brad Wilson of BradsDeals. "95 percent-plus of deals are going to be available both online and offline."
Plus, shopping online can offer the ability to do comparison shopping, something that's harder to do when you've committed to standing in line at a given store. "If you go to a certain store, you're limited to the prices there, unless they do price matching," says Lindsay Sakraida of DealNews. "Online, you can quickly check other stores."
OK, so most of the deals are online. But not all of them! The marquee "doorbusters" that headline retailers' circulars are available only in stores, and they tend to be doozies -- TVs priced well below market value, for instance, are a common lure. If you want one of those, you'll have to hit the stores.
But they're called doorbusters for a reason: Usually you need to be one of the first people in the door to get them. Expect to find them in very limited quantities: Some circulars only promise 10 or 15 units actually available in each store.
That means you'll need to be among the dedicated shoppers camped out hours before opening. And with many major retailers opening in the evening on Thursday, you may have to duck out on your Thanksgiving meal early if you want to save an extra $100 on a TV.
Another thing about that TV: It's not going to be a marquee brand.
"Typically, the TVs on Black Friday are not going to be high end, but third-tier manufacturers like Westinghouse," says Sakraida. If you want to get, say, a Samsung, you'll find the best price early next year when the new models come out and the old ones are discounted. And the same holds true of other consumer electronics: Often you'll see a circular headlined by a $200 laptop, but you can be sure that it's not a top-notch model.
These deals are loss-leaders intended to get you in the door, and as a general rule they're not going to offer such a deal on a premium brands. So unless you're truly in need for a new TV or laptop and can't afford a better-quality choice, it's probably not worth the effort.
The way some people shop on Black Friday, you'd think it's the only day of the year to get a discount. But the truth is that Black Friday is now nearly a week-long event.
"Black Friday isn't just Friday," says Wilson. "It's a six-day thing, from Wednesday to Monday."
Going later in the weekend will likely net you many of the same discounts, but with a fraction of the crowds. And online deals will abound all weekend and beyond. On Cyber Monday, you'll find a lot of apparel deals, and most online retailers will keep the deals going throughout what's now known as "Cyber Week."
Beyond the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, the outlook gets a bit more hazy. Wilson points to historic data showing prices rising on subsequent weekends, so there is an argument to be made that you should find some way to get your shopping done on or around Black Friday. On the other hand, if the sales figures for Black Friday are disappointing, you can expect the retailers to keep the big discounts going well into December. And for certain product classes, like toys, the data shows that you're actually better off waiting until mid-December.
Finally, keep in mind that you can kick off your holiday shopping before Thanksgiving, too. That's something to keep in mind if you have your eye on one of this season's best-selling toys.
"If you're looking for something very specific and you find it in mid-November, it may be worth buying it at that price, because there's no guarantee that it will be avail on Black Friday," says Sakraida.
Opening for Black Friday on Thanksgiving evening is quickly becoming the new standard in the retail industry. That's in part because it makes sense for consumers: Instead of starting their shopping at midnight or 4 a.m., they're able to get in the door at the more reasonable hour of 8 p.m. and be back home before bedtime.
But it's a tough schedule for retail workers, many of whom will have to cut their Thanksgivings short so they can go in that afternoon to set up for the big night. And while retailers do endeavor to get volunteers for the big day, it's generally understood that some employees won't have a choice in the matter. Last year, this led to petitions and boycott calls, but they fell on deaf ears: Whatever bad publicity retailers get from making people work on a national holiday is outweighed by the huge sales they do that evening.
Ultimately, then, the only thing that's going to stand in the way of this Thanksgiving Creep is if shoppers stop showing up that night. We harbor no illusions that enough people could be convinced to skip their post-Thanksgiving dinner shopping to get the retail industry to do an about-face on this issue. But the more people come to shop that evening, the more entrenched it becomes -- and the more likely it is that stores will open even earlier next year. If you can resist the allure of Thursday-night doorbusters, you'll be doing your small part to keep holiday shopping from completely swallowing up Thanksgiving.