Santa may find milk and cookies on his arrival, but you may get a less jolly reception when you try to return unwanted gifts this holiday season. About one in nine retailers is tightening return policies, reports the National Retail Federation (NRF).
Stores blame the stricter rules on estimates that fraudulent return of merchandise will ring up at about $3.7 billion this season — nearly $1 billion more than last year. The most common form is the return of stolen merchandise by shoppers or employees. Others include the return of items bought with counterfeit money or stolen credit cards or by using phony receipts.
Merchants also expect a big uptick in "wardrobing," in which people legitimately buy clothing, TVs or other merchandise, then return them after a one-time use for a special occasion.
What the gift giver should know
To create happy returns for the one in five Americans who will return at least one holiday gift in coming weeks, the gift giver should:
- Know the store's return policy, which is usually posted near the register, at the customer service desk or on receipts.
- Avoid paying with cash. According to Consumer Reports magazine, many retailers that used to offer at least store credit for a return without a receipt may now be less generous, especially when the buyer paid with cash. If the purchase was made with a check, credit or debit card, however, the store might be able to locate an electronic receipt and be more willing to take a return.
- Hold on to original sales receipts and request a gift receipt, which will usually include no price, if it's not automatically provided.
- If the gift comes in a sealed box, don't open it. Wrap it and include the gift receipt. If the item was purchased online, all return, packing and shipping forms and instructions should be given to the recipient.
What the recipient should know
If you want to return a gift, consider these tips:
- Act quickly. Many retailers allow 90 days from the purchase date for most merchandise, but you should expect shorter windows for certain items — typically CDs, DVDs and computer software (all of which can only be returned unopened) and electronics.
For instance, electronics purchased at Wal-Mart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days (though this year the clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26 for purchases made between Nov. 15 and Christmas).
- Make returns in bulk. If you have several items to go back to the same retailer, bring them all in one trip. In addition to saving time, this will help you avoid being flagged by store computers that track how often individual customers make returns. You don't want to be labeled a "serial returner" whose merchandise should not be accepted.
- Bring your driver's license. This season, seven in 10 retailers will require ID from customers who don't have a receipt, reports the NRF. And some retailers, including Best Buy, will require it even for returners who have a receipt. Reason: Information from driver's licenses and other forms of ID helps retailers identify serial returners.
To check your own returns history, and correct mistakes, e-mail your name and phone number to ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com, a company that monitors returns for many stores.
- Preserve the packaging. Don't open boxes or clamshells, and don't tamper with original packaging or the items you intend to return, and that includes snipping tags from clothing. If you do open an item, preserve the packaging in good condition and with all the manuals and accessories — every little thing that came in the box. If the merchant notes something missing or otherwise thinks the item may not be easily resold, the return may be refused.
Return of some opened items in the original packaging may result in a restocking fee of 15 percent or more of cost. This usually applies to electronics but in some stores also to sporting goods, appliances, tools and other goods.
Go online before standing in line. Gifts purchased online sometimes can't be returned in-store and vice versa. So before you make a trip to the retailer or post office, check the retailer's website about its specific policies.
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.
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