Even as the holiday shopping season winds down, retailers are bracing for another wave of big crowds. Only this time around they won't be shopping -- but looking for refunds.
Retailers estimate that holiday returns will total a record $46.3 billion this year, up 4% from last year and 10% from two years ago, according to the National Retail Federation. The good news: Many stores that are looking to keep customers and entice them to make future purchase are lightening up on their return policies, says Jeff Green, an independent retail consultant in Phoenix, Ariz. For example, consumers may find longer return periods, fewer retailers requiring receipts and fewer stores charging fees for electronics that have been taken out of their original packaging,
Still, consumers shouldn't wait too long. Some items -- especially electronics -- have a shorter return window. Target, for example, has shortened its return time for tablets, netbooks, e-readers, cameras and camcorders to 45 days, down from 90 days last year. A company spokesman says the new deadlines are clearly noted on store shelves and receipts.
Also, shoppers who return gifts without receipts or other proof of payment may end up receiving the current selling price of the item, which may be lower than what was paid, says Joseph LaRocca, senior adviser for asset protection at the NRF. In other cases, the retailer may decline the return all together.
For those consumers who plan on taking back merchandise they bought at stores or store websites, here are some of the latest rules on returns.
Longer return policies
Most big-box retailers allow customers to return most items other than electronics as late as 90 days after the product was purchased. Because consumers started holiday shopping early this year -- about 40% began shopping before Halloween and 13% started before September, according to the NRF -- many stores are extending their return period. Toys "R" Us lets shoppers return merchandise through the first week of the New Year, even if they bought their gifts in, say, early September. At Walmart, products such as TVs, cameras and computers come with a 15- to 30-day return policy but the store will start counting those days on Dec. 26, regardless of when the product was purchased. At Macy's there is no return cut-off date for most products.
Strict rules for electronics
Consumers planning to return electronics will need to move faster. Best Buy's holiday return period is shorter than most big-box retailers, running only until Jan. 24. However, through Jan. 23, the store will offer a match to shoppers who find a lower price somewhere else for a product they bought at Best Buy. (The exception: anything purchased from Nov. 24 through Nov. 28.) Amazon.com doesn't accept returns of computers, laptops or Kindles more than 30 days after they've been delivered. Wireless service providers also have strict time limits. AT&T, for example, allows 30 days for phones and just 14 days for tablets. At Verizon, consumers who shopped between Nov. 15 and Dec. 28 have until Jan. 15 to take something back.
Fewer restocking fees
These fees can be as much as 25% of the purchase price of electronics or appliances that have been taken out of their original packaging. But they're less common these days as many stores have dropped them in hopes of generating more sales, says LaRocca. Several companies, including Apple, Best Buy, Sears and RadioShack, have stopped charging these fees on most products.
Restocking fees persist, however, for consumers buying smartphones or tablets at wireless service companies. At T-Mobile, restocking fees run up to $75 for tablets and netbooks, $50 for smartphones and $25 for basic phones. Verizon charges $35 for phones and $70 for tablets and netbooks. AT&T charges $35 for all devices except tablets. Those fees are 10% of the sales price. All three companies say the fees are in place because they must repackage and re-sell returned phones and gadgets as pre-owned, usually at a lower price.
Fewer stores require receipts
If you got (or gave) a clunker this year, don't hesitate to try to return it, even if you don't have the receipt. Some stores, including Walmart, don't require receipts to get a full refund. Target allows returns and exchanges without a receipt of up to $70 in merchandise per year. Some stores rely on alternative proof of payment. Toys "R" Us, for example, scans customers' store loyalty cards to pull up information on previous purchases. If the shopper used his loyalty card when he purchased the item, the store will be able to find that transaction in the computer.
Macy's, on the other hand, puts barcode stickers on products; when a customer returns an item, the clerk scans the sticker to see at what price it sold for. And at Amazon, customers can use the order number (this should be in the email they received after making the purchase) to make the return.
Consumers taking back a gift in the hopes of getting some cash might want to think again, says Green. Many stores won't give a cash refund, especially if the purchaser paid with a credit card. Apple, for example, will give a company gift card equal to the refund amount. Macy's also honors its returns with store credit; if it can't determine the price paid for the item, the store credit will be for the product's lowest selling price within the last 180 days.