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Product Returns Made Easier

Minimize the costs and hassles of sending back your purchases

spinner image woman sitting in chair at home with laptop and scheduling a return for a product online it will be picked up at her door
Ben Mounsey-Wood

Shopping online is easy; returning can be another story. And some e-tailers make it more painful by adding fees and shrinking return windows.

Returns are a huge financial drain on retailers. Nearly 1 in 6 purchases online get returned, according to the National Retail Federation. Each returned item costs retailers an average of $23 to $25, and many end up in landfill rather than getting repackaged and resold, according to Christian Piller, cofounder of Pollen Returns, a provider of product return services.

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Despite the lost profits, 93 percent of retailers in a survey by anti-fraud software firm Riskified said it’s important to offer generous return policies to win new customers and retain loyal ones. So companies are exploring ways to reduce the frequency of returns and trying new return policies, Piller says. “It will get easier for consumers — but if retailers offer more convenience, they may actually have to be more strict, too,” he says. For example, you might see more retailers offering free in-home pickup … but shortening the time you have to make a return.

In the meantime, many big chains continue generous return policies, such as free shipping and long deadlines. They’re also adding perks including “buy online, return to store” options, curbside returns, label- and box-free mailing and home pickup. Many retailers invest in technology to help avoid returns in the first place: Apps let you virtually try on clothing and shoes and try out furniture, paint and other home products. Amazon has started labeling frequently returned items.

Below is a list of buyer-friendly return perks and how they work, plus a sampling of retailers that offer them. They’re free, except where noted, but they’re not available in all locations and may have other restrictions.

Some general tips about returns: Always check return deadlines, which are often extended for holiday purchases. Watch out for products marked “final sale” and those sold by third-parties on Amazon, Walmart and other marketplace sites; their policies may differ. Don’t assume you can’t return something you’ve removed from its packaging. Many stores, for example, let you return gently used makeup, including Kohl’s, Sephora, Macy’s, Target and CVS.

Curbside return

How it works: After initiating the return online, you drive up to the store, and a clerk meets you at your car to accept unwanted items. It’s a great option if you have accessibility issues — or just hate waiting in customer service lines.

Who offers it: Walmart, Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Convenient in-store drop-off

How it works: Initiate the return online, get a QR code and use it to drop off your stuff at designated locations — no labels or packaging needed.

Who offers it: Amazon lets you return purchases to UPS Stores, Staples, Kohl’s, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods. Zappos accepts returns at Whole Foods. Amazon offers self-return kiosks at many Whole Foods locations; Kohl’s stores also have self-return stations. Other retailers are expanding brick-and-mortar, label- and package-free drop-offs via third-party firms. Lands’ End and Levi’s, for example, use Happy Returns, which has free return bars in 9,000 locations, including Petco, Ulta and Staples stores.

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Endless return

How it works: Return anything anytime! Well, almost. Read the fine print for exceptions and fees.

Who offers it: Costco (exceptions include electronics and appliances), Nordstrom (but not Nordstrom Rack), Patagonia and Five Below. Stores that offer super-generous return windows of one year on most items, with some conditions, include Chewy, Sam’s Club, Ikea, Eddie Bauer, Zappos and L.L.Bean. Target gives you a one-year deadline on its house brands, such as Threshold and Market Pantry. Home Depot, Lowe’s and Walmart give you 365 days on trees, shrubs and perennials.

Free return shipping

How it works: You get a free shipping label with your order or via email to print out. Stick it on the box and drop it off. Warning: Receiving a preprinted return label with your order doesn’t always mean shipping is free; DSW, for example, deducts $8.50 from your refund unless you’re a DSW Gold or Elite member, and REI deducts $5.99.

Who offers it: Amazon (look for Free Returns next to the price; items over 50 pounds are excluded), Apple (within 14 days), Best Buy (restocking fees apply to selected items), Target, Nordstrom, Walmart and Zappos.

Extra perks

How they work: Sign up for a retailer’s loyalty program or its branded credit card and you may get additional return privileges. Check retailers’ websites for exact terms.

Who offers them: Target RedCard holders get 120 days for returns instead of the usual 90. Lowe’s and Home Depot credit card holders and REI Co-op members get 365 days instead of 90. If you’re a Macy’s Star Rewards member, you get free return shipping. Walmart+ members get free at-home pickup of return packages on eligible items, no labels or boxes needed.

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