Returning gifts gets easier – and tougher
Kelli B. Grant/MarketWatch
First, some good news: A third of stores have loosened their return policies during the holiday season, giving shoppers until as late as mid-February to return purchases made in November and December. The bad news: Back in 2011, 37% of stores did so — and in 2008, a whopping 53% did, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation. And there’s some churn on which retailers do what, year to year. Ten percent of retailers surveyed say their policies are more lenient this year than last, while 7% say they have tightened their terms. In some cases, the holiday period provides a temporary grace from policies that are getting tougher year round. “They cut back on the policy with one hand, and give it back to you with the other,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org.
For example, Buy.com extended its holiday returns from Jan. 31 to as late as Feb. 15, and Toys “R” Us has eased policies to accept some open-package electronics and other items for exchange, he says. (In a previous iteration of the policy, they were unreturnable. Before that, they often were returnable, but minus a 15% restocking fee.) At the other end of the spectrum, Target cut its regular return window on computers and other electronics from 45 to 30 days, and Sears cut some item categories from 90 to 60 days. (Both, however, still offer holiday return extensions. At Target, the return clock for purchases made after Nov. 1 starts on Dec. 26. At Sears, purchases made after Nov. 11 can be returned until Jan. 24 or the end of the regular 30- or 60-day window, whichever is later.)
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Return policy changes typically aim to prevent losses in a competitive market, says Jeff Green, an independent retail analyst based in Phoenix. On average, retailers see 11% of their total sales during the holidays returned, according to the NRF. Policy terms that require a receipt or enforce a short return window help stores limit losses from products that were actually bought elsewhere, and keeps them from having to pay out a full-price return if the item was bought on sale, Green says. It also helps limit return fraud, which the NRF expects to account for $2.9 billion this holiday season, down from $3.5 billion last year, in part because of new security measures. Still, “crooks are continuing to find ways to get around the system with counterfeit receipts and other tactics,” says Joe LaRocca, an NRF consultant and founder of security firm RetaiLPartners.
Shoppers may find that technology is on their side. Many high-end retailers now automatically print gift receipts with purchases for the giver to pass on, says Green. Stores like Macy’s put stickers on packaging that can be scanned at return in lieu of a receipt. Others, including Apple, Nordstrom and Gap have paperless receipt options that make it easier for salesclerks to find the transaction in their systems for a return, says LaRocca. Online, a growing number of e-tailers include adhesive prepaid shipping labels on packing slips for free, fast return processing, says Jordy Leiser, co-founder of StellaService.
Gift recipients’ best bet is to research the details before arriving at a store, and bring a printout of the policy. “Holiday policies are not always well-disclosed,” Dworsky says — even to clerks. If your return request falls outside the usual policy, or you don’t have a receipt, it can help to wait a few days after Christmas until the crowds have thinned and associates are less harried. “They may be a little more lenient,” he says.