Hate it? An insider's guide to returning gifts

It happens. You get a gift and you want to return it. Maybe you don’t need another electric can opener or you're not fond of that bright pink necktie.

Good news: According to the annual survey by ConsumerWorld.org, the refund policies at most major retailers are the same as last year, with a few notable exceptions. But that doesn’t mean it will always be easy to take back that unwanted item.

“Many stores are still slicing and dicing their return policies, creating different rules for different categories of items,” noted Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “For example, electronics typically have a shorter return period than clothing.”

If you get something you don’t want, you’d better find out how long you have to take it back.

“We get so wrapped up in the holidays that by the time you think about returning something in mid-January, it may be too late,” noted Carey Rossi, editor-in-chief at ConsumerSearch.com. “So there is a timeline as to when you need to return those unwanted gifts.”

Here are a few of the noteworthy return-policy changes from the Consumer World survey:

  • Target tightened its return policy for the second time in two years. The return period for digital items, such as computers (tablet, netbook, notebook or eReader), video game consoles, GPS units and digital cameras is now 30 days instead of 45 days.
  • Sears shortened its “extended holiday return period” from 120 days across the board. Items that qualify for a 30-day and 60-day return can now be brought back until Jan. 24, and in some cases, later. Toys “R" Us will now let you return an electronic product after the package has been opened.  In the past, they would not.
  • Buy.com expanded its holiday return period from Jan. 31 to Feb. 15.  

Remember: Some retailers won’t accept the return of an electronic item if the box has been opened, the product has been used, parts are missing or the original packaging is gone.

Or you may have to pay a restocking fee. Sears charges a 15 percent restocking fee if they determine the item is “used” or has missing parts. At Overstock.com, you could pay as much as 60 percent of the purchase price to return something that’s been opened or used.

Know the rules
Retailers want to handle your return in a friendly and courteous manner. That’s why they have extended holiday return policies.

“Many however, keep it a secret,” Dworsky noted. “Most don’t post big signs in the store, and managers may not even be aware of it.”

Whether they post it in plain sight or not, there are rules to follow.

“Receipts are the key to easy returns,” noted Judy Rohlena, senior editor at ShopSmart magazine. “If you don’t have a receipt, you could be out of luck.”

Most stores won’t accept a return without a receipt. And with all the return fraud taking place, you can’t blame them.

If they do take back an item without a receipt, you may only get the lowest price that item sold for in the past 90 days.

While it’s important for gift-givers to include a “gift receipt,” most stores won’t let you use that to get a refund, only an equal exchange, merchandise credit or gift card.

“If you want your money back, you’ll have to get the gift-giver to go back with the original receipt,” Dworsky said.

Note: The return policies for online purchases may be different. Don’t assume you can take an Internet purchase back to a company’s physical store.

  • Sports Authority won’t take back any online purchases at its stores.
  • Some items sold by OldNavy.com, Gap.com and BananaRepublic.com must be returned by mail.
  • You will only get a merchandise credit if you take back something purchased at ToysRUs.com to a Toys “R” Us store.

Remember: Some online retailers will cover the cost of that return. Others make you pay to send it back.

The bottom line
Be careful how you handle your gifts, especially those you think you might not want. Don’t wear clothing. Keep all the packaging. Don’t even open the box – especially for electronic items – if you know it’s going back.

Keep in mind: Many stores track returns to spot potential fraud.

“For honest consumers, this can cause problems, as some stores limit the amount of return activity to a certain number or value of annual merchandise,” noted Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “So be prepared for the worst.”

If you follow the rules, you shouldn’t have many problems. Just remember, those rules vary from store to store. You need to understand that company’s policy before you head to the store or try to ship it back.

“If you’re asking for something that’s outside the rules, that means you’re asking for an accommodation,” Dworsky said. “But if you’re asking for something that’s in the policy and they turn you down, then you can be more assertive.”

Have a problem with a return? Ask to speak to the store manager or contact the customer service department. If that doesn’t work file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, your state Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agency.

More information:

Consumer World Survey: 2012 Return Policies

Consumer Reports: Hassle-Free Gift Returns

National Consumers League: Stress-Free Gift Returns

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebookand Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.


Discuss this post

Staying calm, courteous and polite goes a long way to getting exceptions made to policies. Don't expect to be able to get special treatment in the middle of a crowd, what they do for you would have to be repeated for everyone around you and would create chaos. Taking the time to make it easy for the store to grant an exception makes it more likely that you will get one.

  • 5 votes
Reply#1 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 9:02 AM EST

Remember, if you need to return something to Best Buy, bring meals and a change of clothes. There will be only one very slow person processing returns and the line for returns will wrap around the store once inside the building, and twice outside.

  • 2 votes
#1.1 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 9:29 AM EST

Most of us already have more stuff than we possibly need. Donate your unwanted gifts to charity and save time jumping through return-policy hoops.

  • 9 votes
Reply#2 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 10:23 AM EST

Happy Birthdau Jesus, you're the reason for the Christmas season.

    #2.1 - Tue Dec 25, 2012 6:11 AM EST

    Quiet One,that is the best advice yet.

      #2.2 - Tue Dec 25, 2012 2:59 PM EST

      Well said Cait

      As a manager of a large retail chain I have the ability to override most store policy's at any time. If you are calm and polite you will get what you ask for about 90% of the time. If you are loud, abusive, using foul language ect you are going to get no accommodation from me. I am always surprised at people that start off demanding things and telling me what I am going to do as opposed to asking if we can do this for them. Be polite,calmly state what you want and I will take care of you every time.

      • 6 votes
      Reply#3 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 11:24 AM EST

      Couldn't care less about any of the consumerism being shoved down our throats. We spent nothing this year but did totally pay off our credit card once and for all. What a terrific Xmas present to ourselves.

      • 4 votes
      Reply#4 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 2:39 PM EST

      Gifts that I don't like or don't fit...I just toss in the trash.

      Its pointless to insult the gift -giver and most stores are such a pain in the arse to deal with consering returns.

      That may sound cold but its the truth

      • 1 vote
      Reply#5 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 2:56 PM EST

      You must know some pretty sensitive people.

      I'd rather the recipient of my gift be actually pleased with it rather than just making me believe they are pleased with it.

      Throwing away a gift is the ultimate insult.

      I always include a gift receipt in case the gift does not work for the recipient. But, I'm just rational like that.

      If I give you a gift, I want you to be satisfied. The last thing I want is for you to feel the need to lie and tell me you like something when you don't.

      If I buy something that I think you'll like, but you don't, correct me. Otherwise you'll just reinforce that that is the correct item for you, and you'll never get the right item. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot!

      If most stores are a pain for you to return things, then perhaps you're that demanding and difficult customer that everybody hates. Returns are always difficult for them.

      Personally, I've never had a problem with returns so long as I adhere to store policy. Here's how it works: I go up to the counter, hand the receipt and state "I would like to return this item" and I am greeted with "okay," and the transaction finishes.

      That may sound rational, and it is. It's just the truth.

      • 4 votes
      #5.1 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 8:07 PM EST

      When I think about returning a gift, I think about Skylar trying to return the stolen tiara in Breaking Bad. I never return gifts. It's rude. If I don't want it or can't use it, I find someone that will and give it to them.

      • 5 votes
      Reply#6 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 2:58 PM EST

      I just donate stuff I don't want straight to Goodwill....and gifts of food I don't want, into the trash. I'm not playing the returning game.

      • 2 votes
      Reply#7 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 3:25 PM EST

      Mr. Nice-

      If you really don't want a gift, consider donating it and it will go to someone who can use it. No one will be insulted and you don't have to worry about the return policies :)

      • 4 votes
      Reply#8 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 3:27 PM EST

      I just re-gift.SIMPLE SOLUTION

      • 4 votes
      Reply#9 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 5:21 PM EST

      oilman49,Make sure to keep a list of who gave you the gifts so that you don't re-gift to the recipient like my sister has done.

      • 2 votes
      #9.1 - Tue Dec 25, 2012 3:01 PM EST

      Always be nice and for god's sake- KEEP THE TAGS. This is especially vital at TjMaxx and Marshall's, etc. because even if the price part is ripped off, there are codes on the upper part that can tell them what the price is. And if it is below what you want (because it went on sale/clearance/whatever) because you don't have the receipt, please quit yer complaining- you could have gotten nothing at all, like all the millions of people out there.

      • 2 votes
      Reply#10 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 5:40 PM EST
      Comment author avatarJeannine Weavervia Facebook

      I worked at Target in the Customer Service department. My opinion is that most people are nice and decent, until it comes to matters of money. As soon as money enters the picture, especially if people think they're not getting their way, they become aggressive, loud and obnoxious. They come to the store mentally prepared to do battle so that they can get what they want no matter what happens.
      Returning something is not your automatic right. Like it or not, you are subject to that store's policy, and if you don't like it, you need to grow up and get over it. I don't know Target's policy now, but a few years ago we were allowed to take back food items (Target's decision, obviously). People returned hams, turkeys, gallons of milk, eggs, loaves of bread, pizzas, etc. and all because they had bought the wrong thing. I tried to explain that all of it would go into the trash and couldn't they keep it? Not one of them did.
      Americans are good people with plenty of admirable qualities. But one thing that stands out in a store setting is how so many of them look out for number one and don't care about much, so long as they get what they want. The money issue will reveal your true character every time.

      • 3 votes
      Reply#12 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 6:29 PM EST

      Jeanine Weaver,I have never had a problem returning merchandise to Target but I keep receipts.And when buying for others I ask for a gift receipt.I know how Target treats it's employees so I am always very nice to all of them.Retail is a thankless job.People should keep that in mind by using their best manners and respect when shopping.

      • 2 votes
      #12.1 - Tue Dec 25, 2012 3:03 PM EST

      I don't bother returning gifts. They go straight to Goodwill...

      • 2 votes
      Reply#13 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 7:26 PM EST

      Wal-Mart has to have the most lax return policy of all stores, as the manager at the store I worked at would yell at the people at the customer service desk if they even hinted at refusing a return due to obvious fraud. We had a customer return a $1500 TV set box, that was still "sealed up tight".

      Later on we found that the TV was gone, and was replaced by cardboard and plywood.

      Since the guy paid cash, and was refunded in cash, we could not track him down, and he never came back. The manager then yelled at the customer service staff about doing their jobs, due to the loss.

      Let's face facts: people tend to get wild and well, crazy when it comes to what they feel they are owed, and Wal-Mart tends to bring the dumbest of our species in to shop as well.

      • 1 vote
      Reply#14 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 8:48 PM EST

      If anyone takes the time to buy you a present you have no business returning it unless you already have one or it's the wrong size. Unless you're watching"A Christmas Story' and you get the bunny PJ's. Then you have the right to be pissed. You'll shoot your eye out!

      • 1 vote
      Reply#16 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 9:47 PM EST

      So, are you just supposed to keep unwanted items around you house because someone gave it to you? I like the idea of giving it away, if the monetary value is not a factor.

        #16.1 - Wed Dec 26, 2012 7:20 AM EST

        I have no problem returning gifts, although I'll usually only do it if I already have one, or if two people got me the same item in a given year. Thus, I'll be battling the lines at Target and Walmart to return a mixer and a tray table set.

        • 1 vote
        Reply#18 - Mon Dec 24, 2012 11:12 PM EST

        Michael L,Sounds like two great gifts,both of which I wouldn't have minded receiving.But I did receive money and had a good time shopping with it.My two most favorite things are money and gift cards.If it's a gift card to where I don't shop I give it to somebody who needs it.Everybody wins and no standing in lines.Merry Christmas.

        • 1 vote
        #18.1 - Tue Dec 25, 2012 3:07 PM EST

        Several years ago, I worked at an upscale department store, in the lingerie department. One night, two middle aged women came in, carrying three overflowing shopping bags between them. They approached my counter with all the belligerance of a rabid dog, ready to do battle. Turns out, their mother had just died and they went through her dresser drawers and basically pulled out every scrap of lingerie - bras, panties, slips, nightgowns - they could find and wanted to return it all. I didn't even bother engaging them; I called my manager and let her handle it. Of course, she returned all of it with a snivelling attitude, even the stuff that was clearly marked as belonging to another store.

        I was absolutely livid that these two old hags got their way just because they pulled the "I'll take it straight to the CEO" card.

        I never return anything, unless it's just to exchange for size. Stuff I don't want gets donated.

          Reply#19 - Wed Dec 26, 2012 1:00 AM EST

          Don't engage in the gift giving and no one has to play any games.

          I think that gift giving brings on too much angst and hurt feelings. I don't want any gifts, and I don't want to give any gifts. There is no need for all of this gifting. When someone that I love gives me something that is not suitable, I am so conflicted with emotion. I would rather NOT have that awkward and wrenching experience.

          I just gave to the grandkids. They are little and it is easy.

            Reply#20 - Wed Dec 26, 2012 7:18 AM EST
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