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Smart Buying

7 Stores With the Worst Return Policies

Read the fine print very carefully before you make a purchase at one of these retailers.

Making an impulse buy in-store or online can lead to regret. And that regret can quickly turn into resentment once you realize the retailer's return policy makes it difficult to get a refund or make an exchange. Sure, you would've known had you read the store policy in full before making your spur-of-the-moment purchase. But you didn't.

We chatted with several shopping experts about which major retailers tend to be the least generous. Among the shortcomings: Some stores that made the list have short return windows, while others make you pay return shipping costs on mail orders. Here are seven retailers, in particular, where it really pays to read the fine print in their return policies before you shop.

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Apple has one of the stingiest return policies at just 14 days from the date you receive your purchase, says Benjamin Glaser, features editor for DealNews.com. It’s important to note that only items purchased directly from Apple.com or at an Apple retail store can be returned to Apple. Apple products purchased from other retailers are subject to those retailers’ return policies.

As one of the few brick-and-mortar book chains still standing, Barnes & Noble offers its customers a short return window at only 14 days for in-store and online purchases, Glaser notes. Customers must have the original receipt or packing slip and all items must be in original condition and unopened if shrink-wrapped. Also, for online returns by mail, customers will have to pay for the return shipping fee. Barnes & Noble offers a pre-printed return label, but not prepaid return shipping. Note that gift cards and most downloaded purchases can’t be returned.

The return policy of electronics giant Best Buy allows its customers just 15 days from date of purchase to return most merchandise in-store or online, says Courtney Jespersen, a shopping and retail expert for NerdWallet.com. It’s 14 days for cellphones and devices with a carrier contract. Only customers who make purchases using a Best Buy credit card and are Elite or Elite Plus status, which is based on their annual spending, qualify for an extended return window (30 days for Elite members and 45 days for Elite Plus members). Like many retailers, Best Buy does have an extended holiday return window.

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Best Buy also makes it online customers pay return shipping fees for unwanted items returned by mail. The retailer provides a prepaid return shipping label with each package, but shipping fees are later deducted from the refund amount.

Lululemon customers who want to make a return must do it within 14 days of receiving their online order or making an in-store purchase, Glaser adds. Items must be unwashed, unworn, still have the tags attached and customers must provide a proof of purchase in order to receive a refund.

In-store purchases and returns are customer-friendly at Victoria's Secret (90-day return window with original receipt to get full refund for unworn items), but returns for items bought online is where things get tricky. While many online retailers offer free returns on unwanted items that are sent back via snail mail, Victoria's Secret does not. The retailer includes prepaid return labels with each package. However, if you decide to actually ship back an unwanted item using that label instead of returning the item in-store, $5.99 will be deducted from your refund amount.

If you shop at online apparel retailer 6pm.com and aren't satisfied with your order, your only option is to return it within 30 days. The site doesn't do merchandise exchanges. In addition, customers are responsible for covering return shipping costs, says Kristin Cook, managing editor of BensBargains.com. All returned items must be in their original condition with attached security tags.

Fast fashion retailer Forever 21 is notorious for its strict return policy. “There’s lots of fine print,” Jespersen says. For example, full refunds are only available for items purchased online and returned by mail within 30 days from the ship date. Customers also have 30 days to return items bought in-store. However, items purchased and returned in-store only qualify for an exchange or store credit that’s good toward a future purchase; no cash refunds.

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