PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- When stores had Black Friday sales in July and offering holiday discounts in October, nobody was considering whether those gifts could be returned in late December.
Now it's time for disgruntled gift recipients to find out.
A Consumer Reports survey found that one in five Americans, or nearly 50 million, expected to return a Christmas gift last year. Roughly the same percentage of all adults were stuck with a bad gift the year before, though 18% donated the offending present, 15% re-gifted it and 22% either returned it or just threw it out.
That led to 9.9% of all holiday purchases being returned to retailers last year, up 9.8% from a year earlier and a scant 8.8% back in pre-recession 2007. In all, consumers brought back $46.3 billion in presents last year, a significant increase from the $39.7 billion in products they returned five years ago.
That's a small Christmas miracle, considering how much easier presents were to return half a decade ago. About 83% of retailers aren't tweaking their return policies this year, according to a National Retail Federation holiday survey, but that's only after 25% tightened restrictions in 2006 and another 17% made returns more difficult during the recession-hit 2008 holiday season. Another 7% tightened restrictions this year.
With policies changing, restocking fees increasing and the odds stacking up against consumers with returns, is there any easy way to get rid of a bad gift? With help from consumer experts, we came up with five ways to attack holiday returns and leave with the gifts you actually wanted:
Keep an eye on the calendar
As soon as you leave the store with a present, you start the countdown to its return date.
Target TGT , for example, has cut its return window for laptops, e-readers, tablets, cameras and camcorders from 45 days to 30 this year. Sears SHLD , meanwhile shortened its regular return window for many items from 90 days to 60 days and cut its extended holiday return period from 120 days across the board to 30- and 60-day categories that can be returned until Jan. 24.
Wal-Mart's WMT return policy is 90 days for most items, but the clock doesn't start ticking on goods bought after Nov. 1 until Dec. 26. After that, you have 15 days to return products such as computers, cameras and GPS devices and 30 days for a second-tier category that includes garden supplies, hardware and other goods. Macy's M has no return deadline for most goods, but customers have exactly three days to take back a piece of furniture.
This year, some retailers have put time back on the clock and made it worth a consumer's time to give return policies another look. Best Buy BBY extended its regular policy 60 days for some members of its Reward Zone program, while Toys R Us now offers its 45-day electronics return policy even if the package has been opened -- which not the case a year ago. The biggest change came from Amazon AMZN , which did away with its 30 category-specific return policies and implemented a flat Jan. 31 return deadline for most items shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
Both TJX's TJX T.J. Maxx and Marshall's stores realize how far back the holiday calendar has crept and, until Jan. 8, will accept returns on items bought between Oct. 21 and Dec. 9. Asos gives customers until Jan. 31 to bring back all clothing bought after Oct. 1, while Pottery Barn WSM has the same deadline for returning items bought from Oct. 15 through Dec. 24. Nordstrom JWN , REI, Kohl's KSS , Sears' Land's End, L.L. Bean and Gap's GPS Athleta are among the few retailers with no return deadline.
Watch those fees
This is usually the time of year when most U.S. consumers learn about the restocking fee, which is basically what a retailer charges you for opening something you didn't want.
Avoiding those fees is as easy as simply not opening the package, but if the damage is done, there are a few retailers who will make you pay dearly for the mistake. Sears will take an even exchange on some opened items, but charges a 15% restocking fee for electronics, missing parts and items clearly used. Amazon has restocking fees of up to 50% on open DVDs, software and worn books, which is generous only when compared with Overstock.com's OSTK 60% fee. That site will also outright refuse returns on televisions 37 inches or larger.
Look to third parties for help
Consumer Reports' ShopSmart notes that credit card companies and other intermediaries can get you a refund if retailers won't.
American Express AXP covers purchases made with its card through a return protection program that will refund cardholders up to $300 if a retailer refuses a return within 90 days of purchase. There are a few stipulations, so cardholders may want to check their policy before putting in a claim. For $9 a month or $79 a year, ShopRunner provides free return shipping and organizes online receipts.
Free apps such as ReceiptGuru, Slice, Lemon and Neat can also help organize online receipts and take scans or photos of your paper receipts. They'll let you know when return deadlines are coming up, what the return policies are at various retailers and how you can best use coupons and store credit.
Treat online and in-store purchases differently
While some retailers have begun making items bought on the Web and at their stores returnable to either, others just refuse to mix inventory. Sports Authority is notorious for not accepting returns of items bought online at its stores, but at least it's consistent.
Macy's mix-and-matches return policies from time to time, but won't take area rugs or lighting bought online back at its stores. Ann Taylor already doesn't like the idea of you "wardrobing" its clothes for a holiday party and sending them back, which is why it won't take back swimwear, extended-calf boots or "wedding and events" clothing in-store, and Loft has the same policy for maternity and swimwear items. Gap also has a habit of marking items from OldNavy.com, Gap.com and BananaRepublic.com as "Return by Mail Only," so it pays to read the packaging before making a return.
Don't return items this week
What are you, mad? Unless you really enjoy standing in line and arguing with people and felt you didn't get enough of that experience on Black Friday, there's no reason to be in the store the day after or even the weekend after Christmas.
If you have a sales slip or gift receipt, the item is in new condition, unopened and still has all its packing material, there's no reason for you to brave the madness for returns you could just as easily make next week. Just check your return policy and make sure you're not hitting a store during its post-holiday sale, when it may try to refund you the current, lower selling price.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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