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Spot return gotchas

Spot return gotchas

Don't waste money on unwanted stuff

Last reviewed: December 2009

Even the best buys don't always turn out the way you planned, and if you later learn that you can't do a return or that it's going to be more trouble than it's worth, it can cost you big time. So when you're shopping, factor in how easy it might be to return the item.

Most retailers have perfectly reasonable return policies (and many loosen them during the holidays), but some are better than others, and plenty are downright bad. We know because we researched the return policies of 88 popular online retailers and listed the best ones and the ones that stink at right. (The complete list is available at ShopSmartmag.org.) We found that if a retailer has walk-in stores as well, the same policies generally apply.

To judge return policies, we reviewed things like time limits, restrictions on the types (and sizes!) of products you can return, restocking fees, and other catches. Some stores, such as Home Depot, won't take back stuff you ordered online.

Retailers that didn't make our "best" list have no serious gotchas, but there may be some restrictions, so always check return policies carefully. And if you're unsatisfied, don't be afraid to speak up. You might not be stuck after all.

Shopper checklist

  • Be sure to include the gift receipt and as much original packaging as possible when giving someone an item purchased online.
  • Check privacy policies and terms of agreement, not just the returns section of a retailer's site. Give the legal stuff a once-over, too. It's updated frequently.
  • Always save receipts and credit card statements as proof of purchase.
  • See whether there are restocking fees and/or return shipping costs. Some retailers require you to return items insured at your own expense.
  • Check a retailer's Better Business Bureau rating at bbb.org for complaints related to returns or check online reviews.

Quick ways to judge a return policy

As you scan the policy, keep these two questions in mind:

How long do I have to return something? We found time limits as short as seven days, up to unlimited return times. Most of the retailers in our test came in around 60 days.

Will I get a full refund or store credit? If you're returning an online purchase to a walk-in store, you might get the latter. Also look for free return shipping of online merchandise.

15 best return policies 8 runners-up
Bed Bath & Beyond Ace Hardware
Bloomingdale's Bath & Body Works
Costco Famous Footwear
Ikea Neiman Marcus
Kmart OfficeMax
Kohl's Staples
L.L.Bean Talbot's
Land's End Target
Lowe's  
Nike  
Nordstrom  
Piperlime.com  
Sam's Club  
Shoebuy.com  
Zappos.com  
13 not-so-hot return policies Biggest catches
Amazon.com Strict limitations on what can be returned (no computers after 30 days, for example); 15% restocking fees for computers and fine jewelry.
BJ's It has a great in-store returns policy, but the Web site is full of gotchas. And another catch: "bjs.com reserves the right at any time after receipt of your order, without prior notice to you, to supply less than the quantity you ordered of any item."
Bidz.com You have only 15 days and there's a 15% restocking fee.
Boscov's Lots of restrictions, especially on big items like mattresses, plus restocking fees on some items.
Buy.com You have 30 days from the date your product left the warehouse to ship it back, regardless of when you actually received the item.
Dillard's Keep your receipt or proof-of-purchase label and packaging or you might be out of luck.
Fingerhut.com It's a huge pain to send something back after 30.
Finishline No returns after 45 days, even if your shoes have a manufacturer's defect.
Home Depot Some items cannot be returned and no online items can be returned in-store.
Macy's Lots of limitations on items from furniture to jewelry (any rings besides women's size 7 and men's size 10.5 are considered custom and no custom sizes may be returned.)
Office Depot You have 14 days for electronics like computers and cameras. Furniture too.
Overstock.com Lots of restrictions. For example, you can't return TVs over a certain size.
Smartbargains.com Really strict on condition of the item to be returned; the package must be unmarked and not defaced to quality for a full refund.
NOTE: All policies current as of August 2009. Policies are always subject to change.

What about other big reatilers' policies?

Some of the season's busiest retailers made our lists, but what about other biggies? Walmart gives you 90 days for a full refund, except for electronics (you have 15 to 45 days depending on the gadget). Target recently made its policy more shopper-friendly, giving you 90 days for a refund with a receipt (some electronics have a 15 percent restocking fee, though); no receipt and you can get an even exchange, up to $70 worth of merchandise within a year. Sears also gives you 90 days to return most items, 30 days for electronics and custom jewelry, minus a 15 percent restocking fee on some items. Most big stores will take back stuff you bought online, but check fine print before you buy.

Are you a returnaholic?

You may have heard that people who return a lot of merchandise might be blackballed by certain retailers. Is that true?

Afraid so. A company called The Retail Equation has patented technology called the Verify-1 Return Authorization System, which tracks consumer return behavior. That's why you're asked for ID when you return. Retailers look at the dollar amount of a customer's returns, number of items, attempts without a receipt, and so on.

So what return behaviors put you on the blacklist?

It depends on the retailer, but only the 1 percent of consumers who enage in fraudulent returns should worry. You can check out your returns info by sending an e-mail with your name and phone number to ReturnActivityReport@TheRetailEquation.com.

If you're shopping at an auction site like eBay or one like Etsy, where you're buying from an individual, not the site itself, be sure to find out the seller's return policy before you fall in love with an item—just in case!

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Shopsmart Magazine.

Posted: November 2009—Consumer Reports Shopsmart Magazine issue: December 2009