Gift returns `a fact of life,' but know store's policy

December 09, 2007|By Erin Wade | Erin Wade,THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

You think you've found the perfect gift, but are you sure? Just in case it's the wrong size, color, scent, decade, what-have-you, it's best to check out a store's return policy before making your purchase.

That way your loved one isn't stuck with an ill-fitting, dust-collecting gift, no matter how well intended.

And if you're the returner? Don't feel the least bit guilty.

"Returns are a fact of life," says etiquette expert Peggy Post. "Just let the giver know you appreciate the effort and money they put into finding you a gift and say thank you."

Here are some elements of the gift swap to keep in mind, whether you're giving or receiving:

No one really wants to tackle those post-holiday crowds, but once the festivities are over, the clock starts ticking on returns. So grab your gift and gift receipt (before you misplace it) and get it over with.

Many major stores offer a full refund within 90 days, if you have a receipt and the packaging is intact.

But some retailers can be less giving. Electronics typically have a shorter return window because items get marked down much more quickly because of evolving technology, says Joe LaRocca, vice president for loss prevention for the National Retail Federation.

"Also, the longer an item is out of the store, the more likely it is to be damaged or scuffed," LaRocca says. "If the item is opened, it has to be examined and repackaged, and sometimes that cost outweighs the profit to the retailer. Plus, no one wants to buy the opened item in the store, so it has to be marked down."

Receipts certainly make returning items easier, especially when getting an equal price for your return or exchange.

A receipt proves what was originally paid for the item, LaRocca says. "There are a lot of sales after the holidays," he says. "You could have bought a blender for $99.99 before the holidays that on Jan. 2 is on sale for $15.99 with discounts and markdowns. If you don't have a receipt, you'll only get $15.99 back."

Many gift-givers opt for gift receipts because they omit the price of the item, says Daniel Gerber, district manager for Barnes & Noble Inc. "But we can still call up the transaction and the customer gets back what was paid for it."

So be sure to ask for a gift receipt, and don't be shy about including it in your present.

Post says it is perfectly acceptable to enclose the gift receipt with the gift for practical purposes.

"You especially want to enclose it if you won't see that person for a while or if you're mailing a gift," she adds. "If not, it's also OK to give it to them later."

Paying with a credit card has some advantages over paying with cash. A credit card makes it easier for some stores to look up a purchase without a receipt, allowing for an easier return. Target Corp. has a system that can verify most purchases made with a credit card or gift card within the previous 90 days.

LaRocca says refunds are given in the same form of tender used to buy the item.

"If it was made with cash, you'll get a merchandise credit or a check, but some credit cards have additional benefits such as extended return periods and price matching, and most people don't know that."

To limit return fraud, some retailers are implementing much tougher policies.

Many retailers are imposing restocking fees or using systems that track "serial returners" and put a limit on how many items one person can return.

Many have their own systems, but a third-party company called the Return Exchange provides services that allow retailers to detect and stop abusive or fraudulent return behavior, such as returning stolen merchandise or forging receipts.

It tracks information, such as characteristics of your current return, return history and performance of consumers who have similar return characteristics, but it does not share data between retailers.

For more information, see for consumer tips and access to your personal return-activity report.

The Return Exchange does not disclose the retailers it works with, but retailers should post this information clearly. If you're not sure, ask the retailer if it uses this service.

Instead of dealing with the decision-making and wrapping involved in giving a gift, many givers are turning to gift cards. But beware of expiration dates and cards that lose value over time.

If you're giving a gift card, check the expiration date and write it clearly on a card so your recipient doesn't get any nasty surprises.

Gift cards from credit-card companies are a good replacement for giving cash, and allow the recipient to use the card anywhere it is accepted.

But they typically have a purchase fee and expiration dates. Many have "monthly service fees" or "dormancy fees" if the cards are not used within six months. You'll also have to keep track of your balance online because many retailers cannot give you that information. MasterCard advises that you keep your gift card (as well as your receipts) after you've used it up, just in case you need to return something.

If you are buying a gift online, read the fine print and keep the paperwork and packaging. You may have to pay for shipping the gift back to the store when returning, unless the item is damaged.

Many major stores, such as Target and Best Buy Co., allow you to return most items to stores instead of shipping them back.

Erin Wade writes for The Dallas Morning News.

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