6 Secrets to Many Happy (Gift) Returns

The Fiscal Times

While gift-givers may think they’ve picked out the perfect present for everyone on their lists, check out the post-holiday return lines at any retail store the week after Christmas.

More than a third of consumers last year returned unwanted holiday presents, according to the National Retail Federation. But with return fraud costing retailers billions each year, stores are tightening their policies making it tougher for consumers who legitimately want to take back an ugly sweater or duplicate DVD.

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“Customers get angry if a return is difficult, but for the most part retailers aren’t trying to screw you,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden State University. “They just want to make sure that dishonest consumers aren’t stealing money from them. It’s theft prevention.”

With that in mind, here are six secrets to make your gift returns as painless as possible.

1. Unwrap carefully. It’s easy to get caught up it in the craziness of tearing into presents on Christmas morning, but take heed if you’re opening an item that you think you might want to return. Certain items, such as electronics need to be in factory-sealed packaging in order for retailers to take them back. Some retailers will charge a 15 percent restocking fee for items whose seal has been broken.

Related: 6 Steps to Smarter Holiday Shopping

Also, keep an eye on gift receipts that can easily be tossed away with wrapping paper after a present-palooza. The gift receipt is the best way to insure you’ll be fully reimbursed for whatever the gift-giver paid for that item. Without a receipt, many stores will give you a store credit worth the value of the item at its lowest price in the past 30 to 90 days. That could be a significant discount, given how retailers have been slashing prices this holiday season.

2. Read the retailer’s policy. Every retailer has a different policy on returns and some have policies specific to the holidays or certain items like media or electronics. At Best Buy, for example, all items must be returned by January 15, while Toys R Us gives shoppers until January 25 for all items except electronics, which must be returned by January 9 or within 30 days of purchase.

If you’re unsure of the rules at a specific retailer, check out its Web site, or see if it is among the 1,000 or so stores with return policies listed and ranked at ReturnGuru.com. “When in doubt, give the retailer a call, and they’ll be glad to explain their policy to you,” says Garth Gasse, director of retail operations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

3. Wait a week or two before doing in-person returns. If you’re headed to the mall for returns on December 26, expect to stand in long lines and encounter frazzled sales associates. Better to wait until at least January to avoid the crowds and get personalized attention from store workers. Bonus: Most stores restock in January, so you’ll find a better selection of merchandise for exchanges by waiting.

4. Make online returns as quickly as possible. Online stores tend to have slightly stricter return policies, so don’t dawdle if you have packages to send back. If you’d prefer to skip the trip to the post office, most online stores with a brick-and-mortar presence will allow you to make returns at their physical stores. That’s good news for the 69 percent of consumers surveyed last year who felt that returning items purchased online is a complicated process.

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5. Forget about returning gift cards. Most retailers won’t give you cash back for gift cards, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely stuck with a worthless piece of plastic. If you receive a gift card to a shop you don’t frequent, several startups, such as PlasticJungle and Cardpool allow you to trade in unwanted cards for a portion of its cash value.

6. Try to stay in the holiday spirit. If you’re trying to make a return without a receipt or after the stated return window has expired, a little kindness can go a long way. “If you’re asking for a special accommodation, it helps to go in there pinkies up,” says Ed Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. “At that point, you’re at the mercy of the store.

If you’re a frequent shopper at a store, or a member of its loyalty program, mention that to a manager, and you may bet them to bend the rules for you. Target’s REDcard holders automatically get an extra 30 days to make a return.

If you can’t resolve a dispute with a retailer, you can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, or your state or county’s consumer protection agency.

7. Don’t blow the money you get back. Retailers love post-holiday shoppers who come in with gift cards and money from exchanges, and they’ll try to entice you with new merchandise or big discounts. “People aren’t as judicious about spending money they’ve gotten from a return, and it’s easy for them to spend it in a frivolous way rather than buying something they really need,” Yarrow says.

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