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Stores may ease return policies

Handful of big box retailers relax rules on unwanted gifts

By David Migoya
The Denver Post / December 26, 2009

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The tight economy is loosening the restrictive return policies of some large retailers, making it a bit easier to bring back that thingamabob you hoped you wouldn’t get this year but got anyway.

With nearly 1 in 5 people anticipating returning a gift even before opening them on Christmas, according to a Consumer Reports poll, some stores are gearing up for the post-holiday crunch by easing up on what you can and cannot bring back.

Best Buy, for instance, extended its holiday return policy by a couple weeks - but computers are still at the standard 14-day return policy.

Target is accepting returns without a receipt, limited to $70 in a year.

While a handful of retailers - primarily the big box stores - are making returns easier, the National Retail Federation says about 80 percent of retailers have maintained their return policies.

Another 17 percent have chosen to tighten the rules, according to Edgar Dworsky, founder of the Internet resource site Consumer World.

And the Scrooges are making clear their return policies are strict.

Many will not accept any opened boxes on items such as cameras and software - in part to avoid fraud - and others won’t accept returns without the original store receipt.

Despite the simpler return process at some outlets, experts warn that shoppers should still be wary of a few retailer tricks designed to grab a few more holiday bucks.

“The easing of some restrictions should make for more happy returns,’’ said Dworsky. “But unexpected restocking fees may still surprise some shoppers.’’

The fees are to cover the cost of processing a return, putting it back on the self, and any revenue the store’s lost because it can’t sell it as new. The fees get steeper if the store is one that accepts the box after it’s been opened.

Some stores have extended the time consumers can return an unwanted gift through the end of January.

“With so many stores selling the same or similar merchandise, where you buy can almost be as important as what you buy,’’ said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.

“Most stores continue to slice and dice their return policies, creating complicated rules for different categories of items,’’ said Dworsky, who makes an annual review of stores’ holiday return policies. “In part, it’s to discourage buyers from ‘renting’ goods for the weekend and to help retailers thwart return fraud.’’

For example, Amazon.com has supplemented its regular return policy with 29 different product-specific return policies.

“You need a lawyer to unravel this all,’’ Dworsky said. “And then there’s Amazon’s 15 percent restocking fee.’’

Some retailers will allow for a return for up to a year - no questions asked, Consumer Reports found. Retailers such as Orvis, L.L. Bean, Land’s End, and Zappos will accept an unwanted item long after the holidays. Zappos is the only one that asks it to be in the original packing and condition.

It is key for consumers to be aware of a store’s return policy at the time of purchase. Though laws vary from state to state, the policy must be displayed conspicuously. Disclosure on a sales receipt is often insufficient.

Problems with a return? Ask for the store manager first before contacting the consumer protection division of the state attorney general’s office.

What are the rules?

Macy’s: 180 days from purchase; 10 percent restocking fee on furniture and mattresses.

Sears: 120 days on most items, 60 days for electronics, software and beds; 15 percent restock fee on electronics with missing items.

Staples: No deadline on office supplies; Jan. 9 for electronics and furniture.

Wal-Mart: 90 days on most items; 15 days on PCs, GPS; 30 days on cameras; 45 days on PC accessories. Days counted begin Dec. 26.

Target: 90 days. No receipt needed up to maximum $70 yearly.

Source: ConsumerWorld.com