Did Rube Goldberg write these return policies?

Did you include “simpler return policies” in your letter to Santa Claus this year?

If so, you must have been naughty, because Kris Kringle didn’t deliver.

Stores have come up with highly complex policies for returns — so much so, according to Consumer World, that the combined policies of 12 well-known retailers cover 68 pages and total over 26,000 words.

One reason for the complexity is that stores “slice and dice” their return policies by the type of goods being returned. For example, returns of electronic goods, like computers, video game consoles and opened goods, may be subject to limits on the amount of time after the purchase that returns will be accepted. Or the stores may assess restocking fees, which reduce the customer’s net refund, or impose other limitations on refunds.

The stores with stricter policies appear to have adopted them in response to increases in retail fraud, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). NRF’s latest Return Fraud Survey estimates that 3.5 percent of their holiday returns this year will be fraudulent, which is expected to cost retailers $2.2 billion.

Some of these stricter policies include the following:

    • Sears has dropped its “30/60/90” day return policy and is now requiring that most items be returned within 30 days. Certain damaged goods must be reported within 72 hours to be eligible for a refund. Some open items can only be exchanged. There will be a 15 percent restocking fee for certain goods, such as furniture and electronics with missing parts.
    • Macy’s has return deadlines of 3 days for some furniture and 60 days for some mattresses. It will charge 15 percent restocking fees for some items.
    • Target requires returns and exchanges be made within a one-year period. However, it has set a 90-day deadline for electronic and entertainment items, beginning Dec. 26, that applies to any purchases made since Nov. 1. It may deny refunds for any open items or items without receipts.
    • Express “do not remove” tags and Bloomingdale’s “b-tags” on certain clothing must remain attached to be returned to deter “wardrobing” — buying items and then returning them after a one-time use.
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But some stores have generous return policies:

  • Kohl’s has no deadline at all.
  • Target will allow REDcard holders an additional 30 days.
  • Best Buy will also allow its Elite members additional time for returns.

Another source of complexity in store return policies is that different states have different applicable laws. Generally, a store can set up any return policy it wants, whether it is ‘All sales final,’ ‘Merchandise credit only,’ or ‘All returns in 30 days,’ according to Consumer World.

Many states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase, usually by means of a conspicuous sign. Some states do not consider a disclosure that only appears on the sales receipt to meet this requirement, it notes. And many stores will require a sales slip or gift receipt to establish a returnable purchase.

So if you’re about to head to a brick-and-mortar store to return an unwanted or defective gift item, be sure to provide the store with your sales slip or gift receipt. If possible, return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all packaging material. Otherwise, be prepared for a refund offer from the store that comes less a restocking fee or is limited to a merchandise credit, or no refund at all.

And return the item as soon as possible, before return periods expire.

How difficult is it to return items to stores?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t find most store’s return policies to be all that bad. But then I rarely return things.

    If I buy something, it is something I want to have. If there is then an issue with the item I prefer exchanging it for the same thing. Most of the issues I have encountered with items are well within the average 30 day window stores allow for returns and exchanges.

    Most gifts I receive from friends and family are acceptable to me and I have no desire to exchange them. Maybe they know me well enough that they know what items I would not like to have. I think many people make a game out of the return for credit options offered by stores, especially after Christmas.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Sears is about the only one in the list that seems bad. They’re basically telling people to do gift shopping elsewhere with the 30-days, broken items reported in 72-hour policy. And it seems stranger still coming from them given the problems the company has been having. If anybody would have generous return policies trying to draw in new customers you’d think it would be them, but they didn’t dig themselves the hole they’re in by making good decisions.

  • MarkKelling

    What probably happened with Sears is they hired a new recently graduated MBA to help return them to profitability and the first thing suggested was that they were losing too much money on returns. So here is the result of someone being given the power to change things who doesn’t know how the business works.

  • AMA

    I believe Target invented the return system where all you need is the sales slip, not the original credit card. Their returns are flawlessly easy. They scan the slip and the item, hit a button, and it all goes back on your card within seconds. They are the best in the business for returns.

  • LDVinVA

    I think Express and Bloomingdales are perfectly justified in not allowing refunds if the tags are removed when the tags specifically state that!

  • Carchar

    “If possible, return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all packaging material.”

    How does one know whether an item is deficient in some way without opening the package first?

    When I’m in the market for something, I always check out Costco first. They are a pleasure to deal with.

  • just me

    I often observed hyped and wrong description on items. Many a time they do not do what they say the will. Many Made in China items, although inexpensive, are of questionable quality or even utility. Generous return policies are good for business. In general on the USA market those with generous and equitable return policies in all likelihood made more permanent and return sales than those with restrictive policies. I personally do not buy from places that do not give at least 30 days to return. I perceive an obligation to discover all flows of stuff bought within shorter time as too much of an imposition on my life – I have other obligations which I have too.
    I read the National Retailer Federation article – and it appears that the reported guestimations do not correlate with new restrictions on the returns at some retailers. I rather looks as if the changes go into simply limiting the returns which I think will slow sales. They will certainly do nothing to limit returns of goods stolen by employees.
    The great success of USA market competitiveness in prices and services was due to good return policies other what can be seen in Europe – poor return policies will lead to lesser sales, higher prices and lower cash turnover of business – all really bad for the economy.
    The hype appears to be driven by truly incompetent “Loss Prevention” people who could not find any other employment for their conspiracy theories. In any population, business and adventures one should expect naturally bad apples. Attempts to limit the risk – is always conning at a loss – which is never properly measured and often obfuscated. Just like the return of stolen goods is not fraudulent return – but is the theft.
    The example of change in policies at Sears is particularly telling of an end of an american institution. Ever since it was taken over by an hedge found speculator it is going down the drain. The ethics of the owner are the problem not the returns.

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