5 simple rules for happy holiday gift returns, avoid common contacts

A new Consumer Reports poll finds nearly a quarter of Americans who returned a purchase recently didn’t get their money back. Here’s how to avoid some common problems.

Published: December 26, 2014 04:15 AM

Returning gifts can be a hassle.

Want to know who the real Scrooges are this time of year? It's the bands of organized retail criminals who go on shoplifting sprees, then brazenly try to return the stolen goods for cash or credit. In a new survey by the National Retail Federation, 78 percent of merchants say they’ve been victimized by such crooks in the past year, up from 60 percent the previous year. All told, the NRF expects return fraud to cost businesses $3.6 billion this holiday season. As a result, you need to play by the rules because many retailers are being quite strict.

We know, because shoppers themselves say so. In the latest Consumer Reports Holiday Poll*, 43 percent of Americans said they tried returning an item in the past six months. Twenty-three percent couldn’t get their money back, only store credit. No doubt part of the problem was self-inflicted. Nineteen percent of respondents who attempted to return a purchase lacked a receipt. The complete list of return frustrations is below. Read on for our tips to many happy holiday gift returns.

You’ve got time

In general, expect most retailers and websites to waive their usual deadline for product returns, typically a week to 30 days, and give you until the end of January to seek a refund., for example, has extended to Jan. 31 the time frame for products purchased as early as Nov. 1 and as late as Dec. 31. At Walmart, the return clock for items bought between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 (that have a normal return policy of 14, 15, or 30 days) doesn’t start ticking until Dec. 26. If you’re unsure of a specific store policy, examine the bottom of your receipt or check the store’s website.

Receipts are critical

Despite longer grace periods, many retailers are tightening return policies. Merchants have in the past been fairly generous in taking back goods without a store or gift receipt, offering shoppers who can’t produce documentation at least store credit for the lowest price the item sold for. Though it’s rare for companies to have a blunt no-receipt, no-return rule, the lack of receipt puts you on shaky ground, especially for cash purchases because there's no way to look up the purchase.

  • Sears and Kmart, which share the same corporate ownership, are two of the few chains with an outright ban: “REFUNDS AND EXCHANGES WILL NOT BE GIVEN WITHOUT RECEIPT,” Sears’ policy screams in bold type.
  • Barnes & Noble doesn’t address receipt-less returns to its stores at all on the company website, indicating to contact your local store for more information.
  • And Target says returns or exchanges sought without a receipt may be limited or subject to other restrictions.

You're being watched

Fraud has prompted some major retailers to implement computerized return authorization systems to help them track your return activity, and possibly even deny a return. The systems take into account factors such as how much time has elapsed since your last return, the number of items you’re returning, the dollar value of the goods, as well as your overall return history, whether you have provided receipts in the past, and the number of stores you’ve sought returns from. Separately, some merchants may ask to see, scan, and store data from your driver’s license or other official photo ID, in their computer systems. JCPenney, for instance, requires an ID only if want to make a return without a receipt; Best Buy requires it for all returns. 

Our earlier polls this holiday season looked at the state of the American shopperBlack Friday crowds, and the worst holiday gifts. And find out which companies offer great guarantees.

Think twice before opening that package

Merchants can’t resell as new any item after the box has been opened, so they penalize you for doing so when you make holiday gift returns. Such policies for electronics gear like TVs, digital cameras, and computers have been around for a long time, and typically range from 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price. Such policies also may apply to furniture. Special orders, if they can be returned at all, may also be subject to restocking fees. Our advice: Don’t open the package if you don’t want what’s inside. Items like computer software, music CDs and movie DVDs aren’t generally returnable for another title after the seal has been broken. Some stores, though, will give a partial refund.

Know where to return it

If you bought an item online and the merchant has a brick-and-mortar counterpart, check the website to see whether you can take back the merchandise to the store and avoid repackaging, a trip to the post office, and shipping fees. Usually you can. But read the fine print. For instance, items bought at a regular Gap, Banana Republic, or Old Navy store (or website) can’t be returned to the chains' factory or outlet stores.


Which of the following problems did you encounter while trying to return a product?

Could only get store credit for my return, not cash

23 percent

Did not have a receipt

19 percent

Inconvenient to get to the store

13 percent

Took too long to return item

13 percent

Had to pay shipping charges when returning item through the mail/delivery service

11 percent

Inconvenient to ship item through the mail/delivery service

6 percent

Lost my discount from using a gift certificate

5 percent

Had to pay restocking fee

3 percent

Directions for returning item through the mail/delivery service were complicated

3 percent

My return was rejected

2 percent

Directions for returning item at the store were complicated

2 percent


14 percent

—Tod Marks

More holiday gift ideas and tips

Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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