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Best Return Policy: What to Know Before Buying

Best Return Policy:  What to Know Before Buying
Barb Szyszkiewicz

by Robin Fiedler

The returns nightmare returns every holiday season because chances are you will have to return something to the store after the holidays. Gifts hold an innate quality of not being quite what you wanted, being the wrong size, being the wrong accessory, i.e. grandma bought an Xbox game for the Wii, or being damaged. And the list goes on.  unwanted-gift

Each retailer has a different return policy, and to make matters worse, return policies vary depending on the type of product and its condition. Researching each retailer's fine print on sales returns before shopping would require a Ph.D. On the other side, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reports in 2009, "the retail industry will lose an estimated $2.7 billion in return fraud this holiday season and an estimated $9.6 billion this year." Consumers and retailers seem to have diametrically-opposed goals for returns policies.

Restocking fees, refunds, in-store credit, product-for-product replacement, and outright refusal are all variables in the returns process. Some rules are non-negotiable, and others depend on the employee's perception of the validity of the return. NRF's 2009 survey of retailers reveals, "Most retailers' holiday policies will stay consistent with last year (80.4%), while 16.9 percent of companies said their return policy will tighten and 3.8 percent said the policy will loosen. About one-third (28%) of retailers say their return policy is more flexible during the holidays than it is during the course of the year." Flexibility is the consumer's in.

Here are a few pointers to make sales returns a more pleasant experience.

Purchase Point - note whether an "all sales are final" notice is posted at the store or printed on the receipt. Also, if the product is marked "as is," the item is non-returnable. Otherwise, when you buy, save the receipt or ask for a gift receipt. Always ask about returns or refunds for large purchases; it may change your mind about the purchase even if the price is right.

Consumer Reports warns, "Some retailers allow any major electronics item to be returned, but others make certain product categories nonreturnable. Laptop computers are the most common exclusion, but sometimes camcorders, cameras, desktops, TVs, and other items are also excluded." The word on the blogs is that Costco and Wal*mart (with a receipt) have the most liberal returns policy.

After Purchase - do not open boxes or remove clothing tags if the item is a gift; it will be much more difficult to return and may rack up restocking fees. Unopened boxes are the easiest to return. If an item is not a gift, save all original packaging and accessories until you are sure that you are going to keep the product, and that includes waiting until the manufacturer's warranty expires. High-end clothing often needs to have the tags still attached to thwart what NRF calls "wardrobing," wear/use, then return it practices.

At the Returns Counter - bring the receipt and be specific about when the item was purchased, why it was purchased, and why you are returning it. Also, be polite. Yes, you. More often than not, returns clerks can bend the return policy rules--a little.

"Attitude Toward the Customer: A Study of Product Returns Episodes," by Chad Autry, assistant professor of Supply Chain Management for the Neeley School of Business, shows, ". . .sales associates experienced little stress in bending store rules or overlooking nonsensical complaints as long as the customer seemed to be honest and straightforward." Autry adds that sales associates named three reasons for accepting returns: "whether the customer behaved in a socially acceptable manner, whether the return request made logical sense, and whether the return would be within store rules."

Venting all your anger and frustration on a sales clerk who knows nothing about your monthlong shopping frenzy to buy just the right cell phone at the just-right price only to have it drop calls during peak hours is not going to help your cause.

Return Period - most retailers follow a "90 days from purchase full refund" policy. However, electronics, such as computers, camcorders, digital cameras, etc., have a shorter return period from as little as 14 days to 45 days and involve re-stocking fees of about 15%. Open/used media, such as movies, music, software, and video games most likely will not be refunded, but instead a store credit or replacement will be offered. Besides having the tags still attached, returning clothes almost always requires the sales receipt.

Do not expect cash unless you paid cash. Gift card purchases may be refunded as cash, but many retailers issue another gift card. Some retailers mail refund checks for items over $250. Credit card purchases will be credited back the purchase price. If it's an online return, you may have to pay for return shipping unless there is a brick-and-mortar store that accepts returns.

In the end, retailers are basically trying to minimize fraud, not create unhappy, dissatisfied customers.  Simply stating that you are "dissatisfied" should be enough to garner sales clerks' attention. Remember returns are an unavoidable part of holiday cheer, so be sure to sign your gift cards, "Many Happy Returns!"


"Research Says Vague Return Policies Cause Stress for Retail Salespeople." Neeley School of Business. 26 Apr. 2007.

Grannis, Kathy. "Retailers Find Balance as Return Policies Assist Honest Shoppers, Fight Fraud." National Retail Federation. 29 Oct. 2009.

"Best Electronics." Dec. 2009.


Remember to check our Black Friday Coupons and Cyber Monday Deals for the best savings ever as you shop for gifts this season!


  1. Some tips for Borders:
    1) Keep the receipt, it makes everything easy. Borders Rewards members will see a new, longer return policy very soon. [Because of all the promotions we run, returning at list price will be very difficult without a receipt]
    2) Ask for gift receipts before you start the purchase, especially if there are some items you do not want a gift receipt for. We should be asking you, but the sooner we know, the better. [Normal window is 60 days]
    3) DVDs and CDs are non-returnable when opened except when damaged, where we will order a replacement copy. If you aren't sure of your selection, we have some great gift card options. [Check with store for details on electronics and Sony Reader]
    4) Magazines and Newspapers are non-returnable, as are any other items specifically marked. [Manager may make same day exception, possibly same week depending on publication frequency]
    5) If you find a clerk unhelpful, don't argue, just ask to speak with the floor manager.
    6) From Black Friday through the first of the year, we will be as lenient as possible because we know all about the holiday craze, we're there morning to night right with you.
    7) With Receipt inside return window: Gift Card goes to Gift Card (California has special rules under $10), Credit Card to same Credit Card (we can't know that another card number is linked to the same account, we must follow contractual terms, and we do not keep your number on file in the store), Check (See store for recent changes), Cash goes to Cash. Returns without receipt will only be issued as a store credit.
    8) If you are unsatisfied, call Customer Care 800-770-7811; we are committed to GREAT service. I am happy to help you personally, just use to locate my store in Rancho Santa Margarita, Ca, or

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