Returning gifts, like throwing out the Christmas tree, is one of those holiday hangover chores that many people try to put off as long as possible. But if the unwanted gifts were bought online, shoppers might find the process a little more bearable this year.
In their frantic quest for customers and repeat business, online retailers have taken steps to make returning items easier. Conveniences like prepaid return labels, the ability to track a return's status by e-mail and the integration of online retailers and their offline counterparts are now, for the most part, standard.
Sandee Corshen, a professional organizer in New York who frequently shops online for her clients, said she always checks a site's return policies first. "I try and find out a few basic things, like whether they will take it back, how long I have to return it and whether they'll credit my credit card or only do an exchange," she said. "That way, there are no surprises."
For some people, returning a package to the post office is more convenient than going back to the store. Janine Mojica, a graphic designer in Briarwood, N.Y., said her only regret is not getting reimbursed for the shipping-and-handling charges from the purchase and return.
One of the most common conveniences adopted by online retailers to streamline the return process is enclosing a return label or address on the packing slip, a practice followed by companies such as Amazon (www.amazon.com), Lands' End (www.landsend.com) and Eddie Bauer (www.eddiebauer.com). Many companies include a return label at the Web site that can be printed out. The labels found at Spiegel (spiegel.com) and Neiman Marcus (www.neimanmarcus.com) are prepaid and allow the sender simply to drop the package in the mailbox. The shipping charge is then subtracted from a customer's credit total.
It is also easier now to return items at the online retailer's brick-and-mortar storefront. "There is a real trend in that because companies realize that having a poorly integrated online and offline channel was a factor that limited sales," said Paul Ritter, program manager for e-commerce at the Yankee Group in Boston. Ritter mentioned Barnes & Noble, whose stores now accept returns of items bought at its Web site, and e Toys.com, which will allow customers to return items at the stores of KB Toys, its new parent.
Different products tend to be subject to different restrictions. Returns at the larger online clothing retailers, including Nordstrom's (store.nordstrom.com), The Gap (www.gapinc.com) and Lands' End, tend to be flexible on time limits and ask no questions.
But computer and electronics retailers must contend with the limited shelf life of most of their products. Most set a 30-day limit for the return of hardware and software, and consumers can be charged a restocking fee of about 15 percent unless the product was bought damaged. Apple and Palm are among the companies that will accept returns only for exchange.
More Internet retailers, including Buy.com (www.buy.com) have opted to make returns easier through a service called ReturnValet, offered since Nov. 1 by Newgistics, a company based in Austin, Texas. ReturnValet allows consumers who bought from sites such as Spiegel's and Eddie Bauer's to return items with or without packaging at mail centers such as PostNet, Pak Mail and Mail Boxes Etc.
Consumers who bring in an item and the receipt are given a new slip that estimates the amount that their credit card will be credited after a return shipping charge and any fee for new packaging have been applied. Accounts are then credited within 48 hours, as opposed to weeks after a customer sends it back to a store. The ReturnValet service is available in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas and is expected to expand to other cities.