A person holding shopping bags while doing holiday shopping

If you believe it’s the thought that counts, then you won’t be offended if the recipient of a present you've given can't use it for whatever reason.

Shopping for other people is difficult. And sometimes even the best-intentioned gift-giver gets it wrong. 

According to a 2018 survey by the National Retail Federation (PDF), one-third of holiday shoppers say a store's return policy is an important factor when deciding which retailer to shop. Some retailers have a no-questions-asked policy. Others have strict rules that make returning purchases aggravating or impossible. 

So why not make it easy for your giftee to make a return by giving gifts from stores with generous return policies and avoiding those that don't?

Here are retailers with the best and worst policies:

Go to Consumer Reports' 2018 Holiday Central for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.


Best for Returning Gifts

Nordstrom. No formal return policy. Returns are handled case by case. No receipts required, no time limits, no original tags needed (except for special occasion dresses).

L.L.Bean. In February 2018, the company changed its return policy. Though it used to allow customers to exchange or return an item even years after purchasing it, customers now have one year after purchasing an item to return it, accompanied by proof of purchase.

The company says that if you need to make a return after one year, it will work with customers to reach a fair solution if a product was defective in any way. For returned gifts, you'll get a merchandise credit if you don't want to make an exchange.

More on the Holidays

Bed Bath & Beyond. Though still generous, in July 2018 the company also changed its return policy

Previously, you could return items with no time limit (with a few exceptions). But now you have only one year from date of purchase. Shipping on returns is still free.

No gift receipt? An employee will look up purchases made in the last year. If the item can’t be found, you can get a refund for store credit at its current price, minus 20 percent.

Costco. No time limit on returns and no receipt necessary, except for a few items, including electronics, tires, and batteries.

JCPenney. If you have a receipt, the company accepts returns and exchanges at any time, except for appliances, furniture, fine jewelry, and electronics. Formal dresses and electronics require original tags or packaging. If you have a gift receipt, you can exchange or get a gift card at the receipt price.

Eddie Bauer. "Every item we sell will give you complete satisfaction or you may return it for a full refund." That means anytime. With a receipt, you can exchange or get a refund. Without a receipt, you can exchange or get store credit. Free shipping on all returns. 

Harry & David. No limits at this retailer. Its stated policy: "You and those who receive your gifts must be delighted, or we'll make it right with either an appropriate replacement or refund. Always. Everything's guaranteed. No cutting corners. No fudging on quality. No excuses."

Lands' End. The retailer's policy on returns is simple: "Guaranteed. Period. If you're not satisfied with any item, simply return it to us at any time for an exchange or refund of its original price." 

Kohl’s. Its "hassle-free" return policy for all purchases has no time limit. No receipt? The store can look up prior purchases. One exception to returns: Premium electronics must be returned within 30 days in original packaging, though if purchased Nov. 1 through Dec. 25, you have until Jan. 31, 2019, to return.

Orvis. If you want a refund, there is no time limit. Its policy: "We will refund your money on any purchase that isn't 100% satisfactory. Anytime, for any reason. It’s that simple."  If you want to make an exchange, Orvis will ship it to you immediately. No need to wait until Orvis receives the merchandise you're sending back.

Orvis says it's fastest to call (800-635-7635) and ask for an Orvis Easy Exchange. 

Zappos. Free shipping on all U.S. orders for up to a year, as long as the items are unworn and returned in their original packaging. 

Tough for Returning Gifts

Forever 21. You must make returns within 30 days of purchase online or in-store to get an exchange or a refund. You must have original receipt or a gift receipt for returns of in-store purchases.

For online orders, you must have the invoice order. Purchases made on or after Nov. 12 are valid for return through Jan. 7, 2019, or within 30 days from the ship date, whichever comes later. Items must be unworn and unwashed, and have original tags attached.

Kmart. You have 30 days for returns with a receipt. With a gift receipt, you can exchange or get store credit. If you are a member of the free Shop Your Way program, you'll get 45 days for a refund or exchange. For holiday gifts, items bought Nov. 1 through Dec. 24 can be returned through Jan. 31, 2019.

Sears. Returns must be made within 30 days and with a receipt. With a gift receipt, you get an exchange or a gift card. If you are a member of the free Shop Your Way program, you'll get 45 days for a refund or exchange.

For holiday returns, merchandise purchased Nov. 1 through Dec. 24 can be returned through Jan. 31, 2019.

Barnes & Noble. For online purchases, you have 14 days from the date you received the item to get a return. Refunds and returns are processed only once an item is received, and you pay for shipping if mailing a returned item. With a gift receipt, you have 60 days to return.

B&N is extending its return window for the holidays: Purchases made Nov. 1 through Dec. 31 are refundable or exchangeable through Jan. 31, 2019.

GameStop. A receipt is always required. You get 30 days for a refund or exchange of unopened products, but only 7 days for preowned products and tablets. For merchandise that's been opened, you can only get an identical exchange within 30 days. 

Abe’s of Maine. It has a stingy 14-day return policy, and returns are not processed until the item has been received. There's a 15 percent restocking fee on refunds and you pay for shipping, plus there are no returns on TVs. 

American Apparel. Items can be returned for refund within 45 days, but the clothing retailer won't take back merchandise that is heavily discounted or marked "final sale." It doesn't do exchanges.

Best Buy. The electronics retailer has a meager 15-day window for returning most items. If you join its My Best Buy Elite or My Best Buy Elite Plus rewards program, you'll get 30 or 45 days. The store requires proof of purchase and has a 15 percent restocking fee on certain items, including drones and some digital cameras and lenses.

Its holiday return policy is more generous: Items (except cell phones) bought in Oct. 28 through Dec. 28 can be returned through Jan. 12, 2019.

Apple. Apple gives you just 14 days to return or get a refund of your item, whether it's purchased online or in the store. If the product is more than $750, you have to wait 10 days for a refund check to be mailed to you. And you cannot return if you didn't buy it directly from an Apple Store or Apple online.

Items purchased online between Nov. 14 and Dec. 25 may be returned through Jan. 8, 2019. 

Newegg. This online seller of electronics and other products guarantees a refund only on items returned new and unopened within 30 days or purchase. It refunds 100 percent of the purchase price of items returned within 30 days, but only if they're defective or unopened.

Opened items qualify for just 85 percent of the purchase price. For opened notebooks and desktop PCs, tablets, and TVs, that goes down to 75 percent.

For the holidays, it has extended its return window until Jan. 31, 2019, on merchandise bought Nov. 1 through Dec. 24.


4 Tips for Returning Gifts

Don’t open the box. If you try to take back an item and the original packaging isn’t intact, merchants may impose a restocking fee (often 15 percent of the purchase price). That's especially common for electronics.

Other products, such as computer software, CDs, and DVDs, generally aren't returnable once their packaging has been opened, unless they're defective. And if products are missing tags, you may be stuck with them.

Keep those gift receipts. Make sure you don't toss them out with the wrapping paper, because merchants often turn you away if you don't have one. If you didn't get a gift receipt (and you don't want to ask the giver for the original), you may be eligible for store credit, though it may be in the amount of the lowest price the item sold for recently.

Check return policies and note any time limits. You can do that most easily online, or you can ask at a store's customer-service counter. Big merchants usually allow up to 90 days for most items to be returned, but they may have far shorter periods for certain goods. During the holidays, however, some retailers will extend their deadlines, often until late January.

For items purchased online, note whether the merchant also has walk-in store locations and allows in-person returns. That way, you can avoid repacking the item and going to the post office, as well as paying return shipping costs.

Bring ID. Some chains, including Best Buy and Victoria's Secret, use computerized return-authorization systems to detect abuse. So you may be asked to show your driver's license or other government-issued ID when you return an item in person.

Merchants scan and store data from your ID to track your history, noting such factors as the frequency of your returns, their dollar value, how often you return items without a receipt, and the time between returns.

Editor's Note: This article was adapted from stories in the December 2016 and December 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.