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How to have hassle free gift returns

Policies and gotchas you need to know

ShopSmart: December 2012

Illustration: Jessie Ford

Sometimes it just has to go back, whether it’s a dress that looked a lot better in the dressing room or the holiday present so terrible you can’t even regift it. Whatever the reason for your returns, here’s everything you need to know to make the process as pain-free as possible, including new shopper-friendly policies, gotchas to avoid, and apps that speed things up.

Digital receipts. Merchants are moving toward paperless transactions, which cut clutter and let you save receipts in one easy-to-search place. Apple uses them for in-store purchases. And companies including Hertz, Oakley (sunglasses and more), Tumi (bags), and Whole Foods Market offer paperless receipts as an option.

Easier holiday returns. Many retailers now offer extended holiday returns, including (any items shipped from Nov. 1. through Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 31); Asos (clothing; from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31, the policy jumps from 28 to 60 days), and Pottery Barn (items shipped from Oct. 15 through Dec. 24 can be returned until Jan. 31). Check with stores for details.

Free return shipping. Many retailers, including most shoe sites, pay return-shipping costs. Others include and Some retailers that usually charge for return shipping have exceptions—Old Navy’s plus-sized items and Banana Republic’s online-exclusive shoes, for example. So read the tiny type.

Receipt lookup. No receipt? No problem. Stores are increasingly making it a nonissue. Target can now verify purchases made in the last 90 days, as long as you made it with a check or a debit, credit, or gift card (that’s still in your possession). Macy’s will look up the electronic version of your receipt up to two years later, and Lowe’s customer service can
find most in-store receipts.

Registry exceptions. Some retailers relax policies for items you buy from their registry programs. Pottery Barn extends its 30-day policy for most items to 90 days after purchase or the event, whichever is later. The Land of Nod offers free returns for gift-registry items.

Leap-year bonus. Make a purchase at Zappos on Leap Day (Feb. 29) and get until the next Leap Day to return it—that’s four whole years!

Third-party programs. You can now go through a third-party to get better return policies. Purchases made with the American Express card qualify for its Return Protection program: If a retailer refuses a return within 90 days of purchase, AmEx will refund your money, up to $300 (just be sure to read the fine print!). A ShopRunner subscription ($9 a month or $79 a year, with 30-day free trial) not only offers free two-day shipping but also includes free return shipping and organizes your online receipts to simplify the process.

Download tryouts. Apple and Barnes & Noble don’t allow returns of downloads, but a few companies are innovating in that area. Buy an Android app in the Google Play store and you have 15 minutes to return it. Need more time? You can test-drive many apps in the Amazon Appstore for Android; just click the Test Drive Now button. Amazon also allows seven days to return Kindle e-books, and many Windows 8 apps come with a seven-day trial.

Crazy (good) policies

Wish you could test that phone’s signal in your neighborhood or see how comfortable those shoes are before you buy them? These retailers let you return products even after removing the tags. And many have super-generous return time frames. Thirty days is the minimum we look for, but the best return policies allow for much longer than that. The best of the best offer unlimited returns, anytime.

Athleta. This website’s Give-It-A-Workout Guarantee means you can test-drive your purchase, and if you don’t love it, you can return the item anytime for any reason.

CVS. All store-brand items—even opened ones—can be returned anytime as long as they’re accompanied by a receipt. The same goes for beauty products, regardless of brand.

Eileen Fisher. This designer has a customer-service department dedicated to examining garments that didn’t hold up to the company’s standards.

Ikea. Sleep on a mattress for 90 days, and exchange it for another if you’re uncomfortable. But use an encasement; Ikea won’t take dirty or damaged merchandise.

Kohl’s. This department store lets you return anything, anytime, even without a receipt.

The Land of Nod. You can return any nonpersonalized item, including furniture, for any reason within 18 years of purchase. Just save your packing slip.

Lands’ End. Zipper broke the second time you wore those pants? No worries at all—this company will take any product back, anytime, for any reason, even if it was purchased with a major markdown or as a second-quality item.

Nordstrom. Take your time to change your mind; Nordstrom takes things back anytime, even fine jewelry and oversized items, and pays return shipping for online returns. (For Nordstrom Rack, you have 30 days.)

REI. Whether it’s the hiking boots you wore only once because they hurt or the sports bra that disintegrated after six months, you can return anything, anytime. You don’t need the original receipt, and the policy includes outlet items. Just wash worn items before returning them.

Sprint. The Sprint Satisfaction Guarantee lets you try cell-phone service and hardware (phones, tablets, etc.) for 14 days. If you’re not impressed or you have buyer’s remorse, take it back to the store and deactivate for a full refund and no early-termination fee.

Warby Parker. This online eyeglasses retailer’s free Home Try-On program lets you pick five frames, have them shipped to you free, and send them back (also gratis) after five days. You must have a credit-card number to order.

Fast refunds

When you return something, you want your money back ASAP. So who does returns fastest? To find out, we partnered with Stella Service, a company that buys and returns hundreds of online items every year from top retail websites.

Based on its latest data, here are the top 10 fastest refunders that offer free returns and provide prepaid return labels with packages shipped—two gold-standard behaviors we expect for retailers to do returns well. All except and provide an adhesive return label, a nice bonus. The times given refer to how long it took for refund dollars to hit bank accounts. (The slowest refunds Stella Service found took as long as 24 days.)

Retail website Average return time
Net-a-Porter 6 days
King Size Direct 7.2 days 7.6 days 8.6 days 9.4 days 9.8 days 9.9 days 9.9 days 10.7 days 10.8 days

Free apps for easy returns

Rather not share your e-mail address to receive digital receipts? Use your address and it will be stored in your Lemon account for easy return access. You can also take pictures of paper receipts.

This app works with the NeatCloud service (30-day free trial, then $6 a month or a discounted $60 a year) to make your phone a digital filing system. Use it to scan your receipts and eliminate the paperreceipt jungle.

Snap a photo of your receipt, and this app will automatically send you a reminder before the return deadline comes. It will also nudge you for coupons.

Grant access to the e-mail address you use for purchases (ideally a dedicated account so that you’re not slammed with spam), and this app gathers your online receipts. It also links to return policies and provides customer-service numbers for participating retailers.

7 gotchas to avoid

Not all stores take back online purchases. Macy’s stores won’t let you return area rugs or lighting purchased online. Ann Taylor won’t take back swimwear, extended-calf boots, or “wedding and events” clothing in-store, and Loft has the same policy for maternity and swimwear items. Sports Authority won’t take any online purchases back in its stores. Some items at (and sister sites and are “Return by Mail Only,” so read return policies before you buy.

Some gift cards aren’t returnable. Apple, Kenneth Cole, and other stores ban gift-card returns. Nordstrom, known for its open-ended return policy, won’t take back gift cards. Bloomingdale’s will, but there’s a catch: Money is refunded to the purchaser’s credit card, so you could end up with no gift.

Using PayPal can limit returns. You can get cash for in-store returns of Target items purchased using PayPal, but only store credit for online returns. At American Eagle Outfitters, you’ll get store credit no matter where you return. At The Limited, PayPal returns can be conducted only by mail.

Free gifts can cost you. If you return something that came with a promo item, many retailers will hold part of your refund hostage if you don’t also return the gift. Macy’s and Toys “R” Us deduct the value of the gift from your refund. won’t even issue a refund without the gift; you get a gift card instead. Best Buy deducts the value of promo items, and if you return part of a bundle, the discount is voided.

No gift receipt could mean no return. Williams-Sonoma won’t take a gift back without a receipt unless it’s defective. Bloomingdale’s gives only store credit for the lowest selling price in the past three months for receipt-less gift returns.

You may be stuck with outlet items. The Land of Nod, Crate & Barrel, and others won’t accept items bought at their outlets.

Restocking fees can bite you. Amazon, for example, takes 20 percent for unopened media items and nonmedia items 30 or more days after delivery. Sears charges a 15 percent restocking fee for electronics without their packaging or accessories.

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