Don't feel guilty about returning that singing mounted fish your cousin bought you. He might be returning your gift, too. Consumer Reports recently reported that about 40 percent of Americans take back at least one gift after the holidays.
Consumers returning gifts this holiday season are apt to discover that store policies have become stricter. Restocking fees for opened boxes or missing packaging are increasingly common, and not just for electronics. For example, Sears now imposes a 15 percent restocking fee for some appliances, tools and lawn-and-garden products.
Stores also have become more persnickety about receipts. Last summer, Target changed its policy to allow two receiptless returns a year of items under $20. The threshold was previously $100.
Kmart, Lowe's and Wal-Mart are among the retailers that now use computer systems to monitor how often customers return items without sales slips. If you bring back too many within a given period, the store might stop accepting them. Some retailers say they're trying to prevent returns of stolen goods.
CR suggests following these tips to help ease the return process:
¢ Check the policy. The store's policy is probably on its Web site. If not, call the customer-service line or the store. Some stores have more generous return policies for goods purchased at holiday time.
¢ Handle with care. Lost tags, missing packaging or damaged boxes make it less likely for consumers to ensure a successful return. Amazon.com says it won't accept returns of products missing the serial number or UPC square on the box. Best Buy and Circuit City charge a 15 percent restocking fee on some electronic items regardless of whether the box has been opened. But shoppers should not have to pay a restocking fee if the item was defective when they unwrapped it.
¢ Bring the receipt. Being able to present a receipt makes it more likely that consumers will get back the item's full value. Without a receipt, a retailer might give credit with the lowest recent price or simply deny the return altogether. Gift givers should try to include a receipt whenever possible.
¢ Go to the right place. If the item was purchased by mail order or on the Internet, send it to the address the retailer specifies. The retailer also might have a location nearby that takes mail-order returns. Sears, for instance, accepts Lands' End returns at its stores. But Macy's and Kohl's, which sell online and in stores, don't accept returns by mail if the merchandise was purchased in a store.
¢ Clear your good name. If the return is denied and a shopper doesn't know why, they may have been incorrectly flagged by a store's computer for committing "return fraud." Consumers might be able to correct the matter by e-mailing the Return Exchange, a company that monitors returns for retailers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some retailers, such as these, relax return policies at holiday time:
¢ Amazon.com. While the general return policy is 30 days, gifts bought on or after Nov. 1 may be returned through Jan. 31, 2008.
¢ Best Buy. Gifts bought between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 may be returned through Jan. 31, 2008. Original receipt required.
¢ Costco. Most products can be returned at any time and within 90 days for computers, camcorders, cell phones, televisions, iPods and MP3 players. Receipt not needed.
¢ Sears. Returns are accepted within 90 days (for purchases made between Nov. 11 and Dec. 15, 60 days for electronics and mattresses and 30 days for DVDs).
¢ Target. Returns accepted within 90 days; electronic receipt lookup available.
¢ Wal-Mart. Returns accepted within 90 days, except 45 days for computer components and accessories; 30 for camcorders and digital cameras; 15 for computers and postpaid cell phones. No more than three returns without receipt within 45 days, except at manager's discretion.