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Returning Unwanted Holiday Gifts: The Essential Guide

Maybe that sweater isn’t the right size, or it’s too itchy, or it has a make-your-eyes-bleed pattern (or all three!). If you’re planning to return holiday gifts this year, you’re in good company. According to Chain Store Age, a whopping 77% of people say they plan to return one or more holiday gifts, and a survey from ShipStation found that more than half of respondents say they expect to return more now than they have in the past.

Luckily, some retailers make it easier to return purchases around the holidays. For example, the Amazon return policy is extra generous during the 2019 holidays: The e-retailer is giving consumers extra time to return gifts for a full refund (you’ll have until Jan. 31 to make returns on purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31), and it is easier than usual to get free return shipping.

Here’s how to make returning unwanted gifts simple. (As far as explaining to Aunt Gretel why you never display those creepy elf figurines, though, you’re on your own.)

Act fast. Although most stores have extended holiday-return policies, you shouldn’t drag your feet. Getting credit for an unwanted gift when you can take advantage of after-Christmas sales can be a good savings strategy.

ConsumerWorld.org founder Edgar Dworsky, who publishes an annual guide to holiday returns, says that some retailers have implemented shorter return windows for certain categories of items like TVs, laptops, cell phones, small and large appliances, and special-occasion clothing. The Walmart return policy, for example, has a 90-day return window for many items. But Walmart requires that you return TVs and most electronics within 30 days — though for holiday season purchases the clock starts ticking on Dec. 26, not when the purchase was actually made.

Bring your receipt — but don’t expect cash. Having a gift receipt sometimes can mean the difference between getting a refund versus getting store credit. If the giver paid full price and the item has been subsequently marked down, you might need the receipt documenting the higher price to get reimbursed for that amount.

That said, you shouldn’t expect to get cash back. “Even with a gift receipt, you’re not getting cash back,” Dworsky says. If the purchaser brings the item back to the store, they might be able to get a cash return or have the card they used reimbursed. But most stores will issue credit via a store gift card for a return if you present a gift receipt.

Check for loyalty program perks. A couple of retailers, including Target and Best Buy, offer more generous return terms for loyalty program members or customers with preferred status, and some credit card issuers offer a perk called “return protection” that can extend the window of eligibility. (Again, though, for holiday presents, this would mean spilling the beans that you’re not going to keep the gift.)

Don’t remove tags or packaging. In general, trying to return an item for the full purchase price if you’ve already opened or used it is much more of an uphill battle. If there’s a chance you might return the item, don’t open, use, play with, or wear it. For categories like special-occasion clothes, retailers might refuse to accept a return entirely if the tags are missing.

Read the fine print — there might be a lot of it. Aside from making sure you note the deadline, check out the store’s return policy online. You don’t want to stand on a long customer service line only to find out that you can’t return an item in-store that was purchased online, for instance, or that a factory-outlet item can’t be returned to a chain’s full-price store. (Both of these are lessons I learned the hard way, btw.) What’s more, some retailers have different return policies for brick-and-mortar purchases than for items bought online.

“There’s a lot to digest. They’re frankly getting more complicated every year,” Dworsky says.

Remember that returns and exchanges are not “free money.” Despite the overhead costs of accepting in-store returns for store credit, retailers secretly love them, because the odds are high that you’ll spend more than the amount of your credit. “Retailers need to seize the moment when shoppers return gifts,” Jeff Warren, vice president of retail solutions management at Oracle Retail, advises store managers. “The traffic generated by holiday returns holds significant opportunity,” he says.

In other words, when you return a gift, be aware that you may ultimately wind up spending money at the store where you’re making the return — on something you may not really want. So that “gift” could cost you money out of pocket. On the other hand, by all means be a smart shopper and take advantage of post-Christmas deals and sales when the time comes to use your return credit. Make the most of it!

As another option, consider checking out online marketplaces where you can sell gift cards, especially if you have a credit on a retail gift card at a store where you never, ever shop. (Check out the details along with other tips for how to maximize your gift card haul here.)