6 Do's and Don'ts of Gift Returns

6 Do's and Don'ts of Gift Returns
Mark Lennihan/AP
By Geoff Williams

There probably isn't a person in the world who enjoys returning a gift, but if one did, it would be Laura Bellinger.

Over the years, Bellinger, who works in public relations and lives in Atlanta, has developed a reputation among friends and family for being fearless with what she returns, whether it's a holiday gift she knows she'll never use or a purchase she regrets.

While many consumers figure it's a waste of time or effort to return an item that didn't work out, Bellinger is rarely discouraged. Once, after a trip to France to see her mother, she returned home with $3,000 worth of clothes from Paris, paid for with her credit card, and a case of shopper's remorse. She called the store, explained her regret and was told she could send the clothes back for a refund.

On other occasions, she has returned food to the grocery store in exchange for store credit and has even taken back plants.

"I hate wasting money," Bellinger says. "If you're an impulse shopper and also allergic to debt, you have to become a good returner."

Given the long lines involved, that isn't always easy during this time of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, approximately $50 billion worth of gifts are returned or exchanged annually at stores throughout the country. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%So if you have gifts to return and you want the process to go as smoothly as possible -- especially if you don't have a receipt -- here are some do's and don'ts to keep in mind.

Do: If at all feasible, bring a receipt. If you have that receipt, you'll probably have a pretty painless and short experience at the gift return counter. If you don't have a receipt -- or are embarrassed to ask the gifter for one -- but you know what store the gift came from, the staff might be able to find the receipt anyway.

Target, for instance, has a refund look-up system. According to its website, "in most instances," it can verify purchases made in stores and online within the last 90 days if the item was purchased with a credit card, debit card, gift card or check.

If you want to return a gift you bought and can't find the receipt, search your email before going to the store empty-handed. At check-out, some store clerks ask if you want a digital receipt instead, and you may have opted out of a paper version.

Don't: Be a jerk. Returning a gift can be subjective, and keep in mind that's a human being behind the counter who may be very weary of dealing of tense shoppers, hour after hour. You may be weary, too, if you've been standing in line awhile. But if you're smart, you won't be grouchy or unkind when explaining that you'd like a refund despite not having a receipt or the item's packaging. If you don't have a receipt and the store could make a case for not accepting the item, you really don't want to make the case for them.

Do: Go to the store when fewer customers will be there. This can be tricky in the aftermath of the holidays, since plenty of people have gift returns on their agenda. How many? The digital coupon site retailmenot.com conducted three surveys throughout October, November and December of more than 1,000 U.S. adults each, and reported that 42 percent of respondents said they typically return at least some gifts they receive over the holidays.

Still, if you want to do what you can to minimize the crowds, Bellinger says the best times to go are late in the evening and right when the store opens. You may have little luck with that strategy in the days right after Christmas, however. "The day after Christmas, every department store is a zoo, even a sedate one like Saks," says Nancy Brenner, who runs the consumer blog garmentdistrictdiva.tumblr.com, which specializes in fashion.

Don't: Wait too long to take back your return. Waiting a month or two to return a gift, when you know crowds will be minimal, is a crafty idea. But it's also a risk, according to Brenner.

It shouldn't be if you're still within the store's extended return policy, but if you wait longer, your receipt could lose value. "Receipts, like milk, have expiration dates, and the longer you wait, the less you will receive in value," Brenner says. "If the price gets marked down further, you may only get the markdown, not the purchase price."

So you may find yourself getting a $14 store credit for a $120 sweater someone bought you. While clothing often makes the clearance rack, Brenner says prices are marked down on just about everything, from holiday decorations to electronics, to make room for new products.

Do: Know the store's return policies. This is becoming increasingly important as stores become more stingy about product returns (you can't really blame them, since many buyers have abused return policies and some criminals attempt to bring stolen merchandise back to a store in exchange for credit).

True, many stores have extended holiday return periods, giving holiday-dazed consumers more time to return gifts, but they don't all have blanket policies for every item. For instance, at Toys "R" Us, some electronic items purchased beginning Nov. 1 must be returned by Jan. 9 to get a refund or store credit. But for just about everything else bought at the store, you can wait until Jan. 25. At Macy's, you have three days to return furniture, but 60 days to return a mattress. Meanwhile, some retailers charge restocking fees (i.e., 15 percent of the purchase) for returning an item. So unless you know the store pretty well, and especially if the gift is expensive or heavy, you'd be wise to go to the store's website and check its returns guidelines.

ConsumerWorld.org, a public service consumer resource guide, has an updated list of noteworthy store policies, policy changes or unusual return policies.

Don't: Get discouraged. The return policies, as noted, are mostly in place to prevent abuse. If you have a legitimate gripe -- a product simply isn't working the way it should or it's the wrong size -- store sales staff and managers tend to do what they can to help you.

"But nothing will happen if you don't ask," Bellinger says. She says she will occasionally hang onto a gift if she thinks the giver would feel let down if he or she learned she returned it, but generally, if it isn't something she likes or will use, Bellinger doesn't hesitate to attempt a return. "Nobody's enjoying the value of the gift if it's sitting unused in your house," she says.

More from U.S. News

It's Time for a Shoppers' Bill of Rights
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6 Do's and Don'ts of Gift Returns
In the wake of a number of high-profile cruise ship disasters, the cruise industry announced this week that it had approved a passengers' bill of rights. The document, which the industry says will be legally binding, mainly concerns passengers' rights in instances where a ship has become disabled.

It resembles a similar bill of rights for airline passengers that the Department of Transportation drew up in 2011. Those rules concerned procedures for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays, lost baggage, and similar issues.

That got us thinking: If cruise ship passengers and air travelers have their own bills of rights, why shouldn't shoppers?

Sure, visitors to retail stores typically don't encounter situations as maddening as being stranded on a floating hotel where the bathrooms don't work, or trapped in a cramped coach-class seat while their flight sits on a tarmac for hours. But the shopping experience is still riddled with frustrations, and less-savvy shoppers are often taken advantage of by dodgy pricing, pushy salespeople and inconsistent policies.

We'd love to see a self-policing effort by the industry to assure shoppers that they can expect certain standards of treatment when they walk into a store. Here are a few things we would include in a shopper's bill of rights.

When retailers run sales and coupons, they include fine print that limits what the deal actually applies to. In most cases, it's relatively harmless -- it defines the effective dates of the promotion, and may exclude select items like gift cards and jewelry.

But problems arise when retailers go totally overboard and try to exclude half the store. Department stores like Sears (SHLD) and Macy's (M) tend to hold sales that exclude dozens of brands from the discount, and earlier this year Guitar Center took some heat for a coupon that excluded more than 300 brands.

Sure, in a perfect world everyone would read and understand the fine print. But it's not unreasonable for someone to see "20 percent off everything" and assume that it applies to most of the merchandise in the store.

Photo: Consumer Media

It's bad enough when there's a ton of fine print in the ad. It's even worse when store employees are inconsistent about applying those terms.

The other day I was shopping at Banana Republic (GPS), which was having a 40 percent off sale. I found an item I liked and confirmed that it wasn't excluded in the fine print, but a cashier insisted that the discount did not apply. Only when I threatened to leave empty-handed did she check with a manager and apply the discount.

It's understandable that the price of certain big-ticket purchases -- cars, TVs, and so on -- will depend in part on your ability to successfully haggle down the price. But whether or not a store fairly applies the terms of a deal should not be contingent on your willingness to make a scene.

Photo: nichole.c, Flickr.com

It's not just the fine print on coupons that's often left to the interpretative whims of cashiers and associates. Corporate policies on everything from returns to price-matching are often poorly understood or selectively applied by front-line employees.

In our review of store price-match policies, we noted a report from Cheapism that found that some stores were inconsistent in their application of those policies. At Walmart (WMT), for instance, cashiers insisted on seeing competitors' ads to perform a price-match, despite a company policy that explicitly says that you don't need to show them.

We know it's not easy to educate every last employee about every last policy, especially at an enormous company like Walmart. But those policies don't mean much if the people who have to follow them haven't read them. Which segues nicely into ...

Photo: Walmart, Flickr.com

Retail employees also need to be informed about the products they're selling, so that they can give accurate advice to shoppers.

That means if you're buying a TV, you have the right to an employee who can tell you the difference between plasma and LED. If you're buying a bra, you have the right to a saleswoman who can properly fit you. If you're buying a computer, you have the right to a salesperson who can tell you whether or not you really need to pay for an antivirus program.

Having smart salespeople makes good business sense for retailers -- Best Buy (BBY), for instance, has realized that well-informed customer service is one of the few advantages it can wield over online competitors. But it's also a matter of consumer rights: If you're misled into buying the wrong TV, bra or software product and then find that you can't return it, that's money out of your pocket.

"Is there anything I can help you find?" is no longer the only question you're asked at a retail store. Store associates and cashiers may ask you to sign up for store credit cards and rewards programs; upon checkout, they might also ask for your zip code and email address.

Of course, you have every right to say no to these questions. But sometimes they won't take no for an answer -- I have dealt with pushy associates eager to get commissions on credit card applications, as well as cashiers insisting that I reveal my email address.

But giving them your email address invariably means getting marketing emails, and your zip code can be used to locate you and send you catalogs. Meanwhile applying for a store credit card can temporarily lower your credit score. Shoppers should be notified of the downsides involved with saying "yes" to any of these questions. And salespeople shouldn't be allowed to pressure you after you've said "no."
You're legally entitled to the price on the price tag. But there are still plenty of shenanigans happening in the background.

One trick: Creating the illusion of a discount by touting a high "original price" next to the ticket price. Kohl's (KSS) is dealing with a lawsuit claiming that it misled customers in this way, while J.C. Penney (JCP) was recently accused of fabricating prices to make its discounts look better.
And while we're at it, let's keep barcodes honest, too. Some retailers have dealt with barcode-scanning shoppers by covering the barcode on the box with one of their own creation; the custom code will confuse any price-comparison app. Retailers don't have to tell you all about the lower price you can get from a competitor, but they shouldn't actively hinder you from making an informed purchase.

There are a lot of things we wish retailers would do better. We hate having to wait in long lines at checkout, for instance. We hate that every retailer has its own return policy to pore through, with various exclusions and time limits. And we wish retailers didn't feel the need to hand us a mile-long receipt covered in promotions and surveys when we're just buying a pack of gum.

We left those grievances out of our proposed bill of rights, because this isn't meant to be a shopping wish list -- the focus here is on basic standards of fairness and honesty that will protect the shopper.

Still, we may have missed a few. If there are certain rights that you feel every shopper should be guaranteed, we'd love to hear about it. Give us a shout in the comments or send an email to Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com.

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