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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.