Got a Gift That Just Isn't You? Be a Smart Returner

Nevada Las Vegas Walmart Wal-Mart Super Center centre shopping Customer Service returns line queue customers
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Now that all of the gifts have been unwrapped, you have three choices: use the present because you really do like it, put it in the back of the closet because you'll never use it but you may regift it next year, or return it.

The National Retail Federation says more than $58-billion worth of gifts were returned last year.

If you received something that doesn't fit, or just isn't you, there's no need to rush back to the store and do battle with all of the people looking for post-Christmas bargains. You have a little bit of time, but you have to know the rules -- and the rules differ from store to store and from one item to the next. If you have a receipt or a gift receipt, the return process is a whole lot easier. A survey by the NRF found 68 percent of the respondents say they included a gift receipt some or most of the time.

You may still need to check the fine print on each retailer's website, but we'll lay out the basic policies for many of the largest chains. Most stores give you at least 30 days to make returns, and the clock does not start running until Dec. 26. Some offer 90 days, and some -- mostly high-end department stores -- are even more liberal with their policies. But there are also stricter rules and exceptions, especially when it comes to electronics, computers, digital cameras and other items. The return window for these items is only open for 15 days at some stores, and almost all stores insist that these items not be opened and that you bring it back with all of the original packing. Some stores charge restocking fees on these items. The motive behind these restrictions is to reduce fraud, which cost retailers more than $9 billion last year.

How Big Chains Behave

Let's start with the biggest retailer, Walmart (WMT). It gives you 90 days on most items, including electronics, but there is a fairly long list of exceptions that could be subject to as little as 15 days. Computer software, books, movies and video games must be unopened (which is pretty standard), and defective items on that list can only be exchanged for the same title. Again, this is an effort to limit return fraud. It's not OK to watch a DVD and then try to return or exchange it for something else. If you don't have a receipt, Walmart will give cash refunds for items under $25. If the purchase was for over that amount, you can get a shopping card or an even exchange.

Target (TGT) says it will give a refund or exchange on most unopened items in new condition for 90 days. The company gives its REDcard holders an extra 30 days on most items. Like other chains, it notes that exceptions are spelled out on the receipt or the packing slip. Cellphones bought with a service contract must be returned or exchanged within 14 days, and they may be subject to an early termination fee of the contract.

JCPenney (JCP) also gives 90 days for most items, if you have a receipt or a gift receipt. If you don't have one, you can either exchange the item or get a refund based on the lowest price JCPenney has sold that item for over the past 45 days. That's the reverse of the price-match deal many stores offer leading up to Christmas. If your item is marked down again after Christmas, your refund will be based on that lowered price. Again, that's not unusual at general merchandise stores.

Home Depot (HD) and Lowe's (LOW) have similar return policies -- 90 days on most items. Lowe's notes that it has the option to repair or replace many of your returns. But good news if you don't have a receipt: Lowe's says that in most instances it can retrieve it by using your original credit card or checking account number.

Gap (GPS), along with its Old Navy and Banana Republic divisions, give you 45 days for a return, and items must be "unwashed and unworn."

Best Buy (BBY) only gives you until Jan. 15 to return "almost everything." Opened computer software, movies, music or video games can only be exchanged for an identical item.

Get Out Your Calendar -- It Can Get Really Complicated

Some department store chains such as Macy's (M) and Nordstrom (JWN) do not have a time limit on returns or exchanges, if you have a gift receipt. Macy's will give you a gift card if you don't have a receipt, and the amount will be based on the lowest sales price over the past six months. Bloomingdale's does not allow for the return of some of its fancier dresses if the tags are removed. The idea there is to prevent "wardrobing," when someone buys a dress and tries to return after one wearing.

Other stores that do not place any time limit on returns include Anthropologie (URBN), Bath & Body Works (LB), Costco (COST), Lands' End (LE) and L.L. Bean. On the other end of the scale, Marshalls and TJ Maxx (TJX) only give you until Jan. 7 to return holiday purchases made between Oct. 20 and Dec. 8. If the gift was bought between Dec. 9 and Dec. 24, you have 30 days. (Weird, eh?) And Toys R Us gives 30 days, except for most electronic, digital and video items. They have to be returned by Jan. 9.

The policies can be complicated, so you might want to check online at each store you plan to return an item to. There is usually a search box near the top of the home page, and you can enter "return policy" to get the specifics for your items. If you run into problems at the store, bump it up to the store manager or the customer service department. If that doesn't do it, file a complaint with your state's Office of Attorney General. As a last resort, air your complaints on social media. Many companies are pretty responsive these days to negative comments on Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and other sites.
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