Buyer beware

CONSUMING INTERESTS

Know return policies, keep receipts

December 19, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG

Carol Miller was not at all happy to learn an annoying lesson amid the joy of holiday shopping. But learn a lesson she did, when she bought two pairs of what she thought were Heelys - those popular athletic shoes featuring a single, stealth wheel housed in the heel - from a kiosk in White Marsh Mall. When she got the gift home, she realized that her $84 roller shoes were not only not Heelys, but that the wheels occasionally jammed going in and out of the heel.

Disappointed, the 58-year-old Carney nurse took the shoes back - only to find that she could not get a refund. The sales associate pointed to a no-returns policy sign the size of a large index card, taped flat beside the register.

"I just feel like I got duped," Miller said. "When they asked me if I saw that sign, I said no. I didn't even sign the receipt by the register so how could I see it? I could call American Express to dispute the charge, but I'm basically stuck with these.

"From now on, the first question I'm going to ask is, `What is your return policy?'" Miller vowed.

That's a question every shopper should be asking this season. Finding the perfect present isn't enough anymore. The mark of a good giver is taking the extra step to ensure that recipients will encounter happy returns after the holidays.

Retail expert Daniel Butler said businesses have been forced to take tougher measures to battle fraud.

"They know that 99.5 percent of their customers are honest, but the small, few people doing bad," said Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at industry trade group National Retail Federation. "Well, we all pay the price for that theft."

How big a price? Retailers are expecting to lose $3.5 billion from return fraud this holiday season, according to an NRF survey. Total return fraud this year is expected to hit $9.6 billion.

With such losses, 69 percent of retailers say return policies have been changed to address the issue, the survey said.

So head ups: Consumers who don't like that singing fish wall plaque they found under the tree better hope the giver was also thoughtful enough to include a gift receipt in the box. The plaid pants grandma gave you might be keepers since the plaid-happy pants store she got them from allows only exchanges, no refunds. How about the MP3 players you begged for and received two of? Neither might be returnable if you removed both from the original packaging.

Part of the problem is that a lot of merchandise is stolen by organized groups from stores or purchased online using stolen credit cards and then brought back to stores for a refund or credit during the holidays.

Such theft has forced many stores to adopt computerized authorization systems to monitor and limit returns, according to Consumer Reports magazine. That means a return or refund might be refused if the store's computer system tags you for returning merchandise too often. Innocent shoppers can get tagged by these systems.

Many stores are also cracking down on the practice of borrowing merchandise, often called "wardrobing" or "closeting." You know, buying a party dress or computer game and then returning it after use.

Merchants are often left to deal with a worn product that might be resold at a deep discount, if at all.

So let's do our part as consumers to save ourselves and merchants any post-holiday fury by adopting two simple steps immediately: 1. Take note of all return policies, and 2. Keep all receipts.

"It's so important to save your receipts," said Helen McQuay, a 54-year-old Tilghman Island microbiologist who has also learned a couple of lessons about bad return experiences. "It's not just to make the return easier, but also, there are so many sales around Christmas time that if you don't have a receipt, they don't give you back the entire amount you paid for an item. You might only get the current sale price on the floor without proof that you paid the full price."

Another thing to understand is that retailers are not legally required to offer refunds. In fact, retailers can set whatever policy they want for returns or exchanges, as long as they post it, according to the Maryland Attorney General's Office.

That means a store can turn you away, period. Stores can choose not to accept any returns at all, allow returns only for exchange or store credit, accept returns only within a set time after purchase, or accept returns only if the merchandise is unopened. Many stores will even charge a restocking fee.

If you don't see a return policy sign, ask an employee.

If the employee is vague, ask the manager.

The beauty of being informed is that if you don't like the policy, you don't have to buy from that store.

Regardless of a store's return policy, however, the attorney general's office says the merchant is required to repair the item, replace it or give you a refund if an item is defective. Just make clear that the store understands the item is being returned because it was defective.

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