6 Things You Must Know About Gift Returns

How to avoid the hassle when you need to take it back.

1. Sooner is always better. You may not have as long as you think to return the three-sizes-too-large sweater Aunt Millie gave you for Christmas. Every store has its own policy. Among major retailers, Macy’s allows returns at any time, regardless of purchase date. Target allows 90 days for a return; Sears gives you 30 days for electronics but 90 days for clothing. Consumer expert Andrea Woroch says, “Get your returns done by early January to make sure you’re not stuck with something you don’t want. If you can’t find something now, get a gift card and use it later.”

2. But you might get a reprieve. According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, 28% of retailers modified their return policies during the last holiday shopping season. Best Buy set off shock waves when it shortened its usual return period to just 15 days. But Best Buy holiday shoppers have until January 15 to return goods bought after November 1. Amazon.com gives you until January 31. If a store doesn’t extend its return policy based on the purchase date, it may start the clock on December 26 rather than the day the item was purchased. You’ll have to ask about policy extensions because few retailers advertise them.

3. Darn, no receipt. Good gift-givers include a gift receipt. But if you don’t get one for something you’d like to return, politely ask where the item was bought. You should be able to get store credit or a gift card for its current sales price (a downer if it happens to be a seasonal item on sale). You’ll almost never get cash, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. One exception: Walmart, where you don’t need a receipt for items that cost less than $25, and you get back cash.

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4. Do it in person, if you can. You may be able to make an even exchange. Most retailers will allow you to return an item to a brick-and-mortar branch even if it was purchased online. But call ahead before you make the trek because there are exceptions, such as clothing retailer H&M. Many online merchants make it easier to return an item by mail by providing a shipping label. However, the cost of shipping may be deducted from the credit. Shoe merchants are particularly lenient; in order to encourage online ordering, companies such as Zappos.com and Piperlime.com offer both free shipping and free returns.

5. Watch out for restocking fees. Restocking fees are common on electronics, particularly DVDs and video games, because of the potential for burning the content and then returning the item, says Louis DeNicola, a reporter for Cheapism.com, a comparison site for consumer goods. Amazon allows its partner sellers to charge a 20% fee on unopened media and a 50% fee if the item has been opened.

6. Give these retailers a gold star. Costco, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean and Nordstrom are known for their open-ended returns on most items (Costco has a 90-day return policy on electronics). Nordstrom will take back items without a receipt. REI rescinded its lifetime return policy in June 2013, but it still gives you a year to return an item, no questions asked. Target will take back an item without a receipt as long as the purchase was made with a credit card, check or Target GiftCard the store can track.

Jessica L. Anderson
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Anderson has been with Kiplinger since January 2004, when she joined the staff as a reporter. Since then, she's covered the gamut of personal finance issues—from mortgages and credit to spending wisely—and she heads up Kiplinger's annual automotive rankings. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the 2012 president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and serves on its board of directors. In 2014, she was selected for the North American Car and Truck Of the Year jury. The awards, presented at the Detroit Auto Show, have come to be regarded as the most prestigious of their kind in the U.S. because they involve no commercial tie-ins. The jury is composed of nationally recognized journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, who are selected on the basis of audience reach, experience, expertise, product knowledge, and reputation in the automotive community.