Relax, breathe and get ready for returns, refunds and refusals

Consuming Interests


Finally. It's over.

The presents are opened. Phone calls to distant friends and relatives have been made. Holiday dinners tucked away. The house is quiet and you can finally relax.

But don't get too comfortable.

More likely than not, someone in the family didn't love their sea-foam sweater. Or maybe the remote controlled toy racecar petered out after half-an-hour and it had nothing to do with the batteries. Then there's that flat-screen LCD television, which isn't quite so beautiful with its doggone defective bulb.

Just when you thought the stress of holiday shopping was over, the nightmare of holiday returns is beginning. Starting tomorrow, long, frustrating lines will start forming in department stores and other retailers as consumers take back their not-so-perfect gifts. Some will have their receipts. Some won't. Some will want a refund; others, an exchange. Some won't be able to find what they want.

Many will be short-tempered.

If the thought of returning gifts makes you want to curl up in fetal position under your bed, there's good reason. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that 4 to 6 percent of this year's $439.5 billion in holiday sales will be returned. That's a whole lot of returns by a whole lot of people ... a whole lot of potentially unhappy, irritated people.

We've pulled together advice to help you master the vexing art of gift return without losing your mind:

First things first. Do not return anything tomorrow, Dec. 26. The lines will be looooong. The holiday cheer will be gone. And you'll have to fight with those shoppers getting a head start on next year's gift list with this year's post-holiday sales.

When you do go, timing is everything. Go during the week, not the weekend. Remember that your lunch hour is everyone else's lunch hour, too. It will be busy. Store employees are less likely to be understanding about why the shirt you've never worn is covered in food stains if they're busy. It's best to go before noon. If that's not possible, go later in the evening.

But don't procrastinate either, according to the NRF. Wait too long and you'll be stuck choosing between the fluorescent green pants and rainbow-colored poncho as your exchange gift because the other smart shoppers already picked through the best merchandise.

Even more important, find your receipt or gift receipt. Things will go so much more easily for you with a receipt. With a receipt, the employees at the store should smile at you and process your transaction quickly. Without a receipt, you might get the stink-eye and muttered comments about your mother.

If you don't have a receipt, NRF says, try to return it anyway. Just make sure the tags are still attached to the product. Keep the product in its original packaging. Bring it back in the store's bag. That means if it's a clock radio from Best Buy, don't bring it in a Circuit City bag.

But keep in mind that without a receipt, many retailers will only provide a refund or exchange equal to the lowest price that product sold for in the last 30 days, NRF says.

It also helps to know the retailer's return policy before you go anywhere, says Nancy Green, vice president of Charm City Concierge in Baltimore. Most retailers have their policy prominently displayed or printed on the back of receipts. Some stores won't accept returns without the original tags attached. Others won't if the product has been opened. Some will not refund money, even if you paid in cash.

If you don't know the policy, don't be shy about asking an employee. Once informed, you'll avoid a sudden case of brain-cramping anger when the product you want isn't available, but you can't get a refund because you can only get store credit even though nothing else in the store appeals to you. You'll still be angry, but forewarned.

If you're returning something from an online retailer, make sure you do some research first. Check to see who's responsible for the shipping charges, you or the merchant. Make you sure have the right return address. If you're buying from Amazon, some products come from third party sellers, which means sending it back to Amazon would be futile.

Finally, but most importantly, be kind. Don't shout. Be patient. Smile, if possible.

"Understand what the merchants are going through, too," Green says. You may be returning one thing to them, but they are dealing with dozens upon dozens of people just like you hour after hour and day after day. "It can be a frustrating time for everyone."


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