Everything you ever wanted to know about holiday gift returns (but were afraid to ask)

By | December 19th, 2016

Forget the season of giving — it’s the season of returns that could really hurt your bottom line.

The hyper-busy gift return period, typically the week after Christmas, is second only to Black Friday for foot traffic. It’s also a taboo topic, because talking about gift returns means we have to admit that some of our presents missed the mark.

But let’s go there anyway. Why? Because merchants can make it difficult to return a present. The latest survey of return policies by Consumerworld.org notes some major retailers are tightening their return policies in order to squeeze even more money out of their customers. Among the retailers with the most restrictive rules: Sears and Best Buy.

To avoid getting stuck with an unwanted holiday present, both you and the person giving the gift must take a few simple precautions. And there are steps you should take during the return so that you don’t offend the giver and don’t lose money.

Preparing for the inevitable

Veteran shoppers like Kathy Palmer know that gift-giving is more art than science, and she’s prepared.

“I ask for a gift receipt at the time of purchase,” says Palmer, a retired nurse from Martinsburg, W.Va. “When wrapping gifts, I just place the receipt in the box with the gift, sometimes I will even place it in an envelope.”

Is there a way to ensure the gift won’t be returned? Actually, yes. A gift-registry site like Jifiti.com, which works with companies such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Toys “R” Us and IKEA, allows you to give a present and let the recipient review it before it’s given.

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“The recipient can accept, modify or change the gift before it’s shipped,” says Shaul Weisband, one of the company’s founders. “That eliminates gift returns.”

You can also give cash or gift cards — options we considered in a previous column. But many people consider those choices cop-outs, because they strip the element of thoughtfulness from the gift-giving. Gift cards also often benefit businesses more than they do customers.

The right way to return a gift

Ready to bring your present back? If the gift came from someone like Palmer, the process is fairly straightforward. Most stores will let you exchange the gift for a different item. The problem comes when there’s no paperwork, says etiquette expert April Masini.

“If you don’t have a receipt and want to exchange the gift for a different size, a different model, or something completely different, it’s fine to contact the gift giver and let them know how much you love the gift, but that it’s just a little small and you want to get a larger size,” she says. “This allows the gift giver to save face if the gift was regifted or purchased at a sale price they don’t want you to know about, and to offer and exchange it for you. It’s also an opportunity for them to give you the receipt, if that’s no big deal for them. So, always ask.”

And ask nicely, she advises.

“The holiday return scene is typically stressful,” says Masini. “Be prepared to use your best manners and don’t make your returns during stressful times of the day for you, when you’re likely to blow up at the long wait in line to make a return or strict return policies that you can’t measure up to.”

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What if they won’t take it back? Well, that’s where those somewhat restrictive policies come in. It pays to do a little research.

For example, last year Toys “R” Us made headlines for its poorly disclosed holiday return policy, which stated that “most items” bought from Sept. 1 onward could be returned until Jan. 23, except Nov. 1 onward “for video game hardware, cameras, music players, etc. Netbooks, eReaders, etc.” Those could only be returned until Jan. 9.

But there are rules — and there’s reality. Shirley Kroot has returned a gift or two, and found that exceptions can be made to any policy, no matter how customer-unfriendly or evenly enforced it seems to be.

“As with every situation, persistence, patience, and politeness usually works,” says Kroot, a retired real estate appraiser from Tucson, Ariz. “If it doesn’t, start writing letters to the executives. You will win.”

How to not get ripped off

Rules for returning merchandise typically don’t change during the holiday season, but they can be stretched. There are millions of other savvy customers like Kroot who will prove that true, come January.

But a little insider knowledge helps. For example, it can be useful to know that most return policies are the same whether you’re shopping online or in a store. But also, knowing that some large retailers will allow you to return online purchases directly to a store, which allows for a faster exchanges. There’s a good reason for that, says Benjamin Glaser, an editor for DealNews.com.

“Returns by mail can be a hassle, with the need to repackage your purchase, bring it to a shipping service, and often pay for the return cost out of pocket,” he says.

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His advice? Avoid returns by mail if possible.

Also, beware of “restocking” fees for returns, which are common with electronic items, but can appear anywhere. These fees supposedly cover the cost of returning the merchandise to the shelf, but some restocking fees cover much more than that cost, and can enrich the merchant, deter the customer from making a return, or both.

And watch for surprises. Restocking fees can come and go, rise and fall, and other customer-unfriendly policies, like secret return rules, can crop up any time. For all we know, the worst surprises are still ahead. All the more reason to ask before you return this year’s holiday gift. Your best move may be the one you must never tell your loved one about: regifting.

Knowing when and how to return your present — but most importantly, how to avoid the spectacle of post-holiday returns — may be the key to a peaceful and disappointment-free start to 2017.

  • MarkKelling

    Here’s an idea that prevents all the stress of returning things — just keep the gifts you received.

  • You could always donate unwanted gifts.

  • PsyGuy

    This will sound crazy but I don’t return gifts. I either regift the item, or donate it to charity if I must get rid of it.

  • PsyGuy

    Agreed, really unless you’re a kid who got a Xbox1 instead of a PS4 you don’t need to return anything.

  • cscasi

    “Consumerworld.org Editor Edgar Dworsky singles out Overstock.com’s return policy on jewelry on watches, which incur up to a 100 percent “restocking” fee. “It’s harsh,” he says.”
    Where does the Overstock return policy say the above? The only reference to non-returnable items of jewelry is – “Body Jewelry (i.e. jewelry for body piercings)”. Further, its returns policy for th Christmas season states: “The perfect gift not what you expected? No sweat, our holiday return policy makes it easy to return your item and get a refund! Our policy applies to all purchases from November 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016. To get a full refund, initiate a return for the item(s) within 30 days of delivery or by January 31, 2017 (whichever date is later). We’ll give you plenty of time to return your stuff!

    Returns need to be received at our warehouse within 15 days of the return initiation. All items must be in their original condition to qualify for a full refund. You may receive a partial refund if the returned item was opened, used, or returned late.”
    How is this unreasonable and can cost me up to 100% restocking fee?? Of course, if something is opened and then returned, I would expect to pay a fee.

  • cscasi

    That’s a thought.

  • greg watson

    These were gifts to myself, so when I changed my mind about buying a smartphone camera / pedometer
    wrist watch, I contacted Amazon ca to see what could be done. Online, I was able to print a return postage sticker (with tracking #) & pop the package in a mail box……………………………..at no charge!
    In addition, I had ordered 2 Keurig pod drawers, & by mistake 4 units were shipped to me, & I noticed on my statement that I had only been charged for 2. I was able to return the 2 extra units, the same way, & again at no cost or inconvenience to me.

  • Dutchess

    How is re-gifting or sending them to charity ANY better than returning it for something you can use or want? I have no problem exchanging gifts, I think people would appreciate that I got something I could use rather than basically tossing it.

  • Rebecca

    This is exactly why I don’t do Christmas nonsense. Kids get gifts. My husband and I don’t live near family, so I just make something complicated I normally don’t make, like beef wellington last year. Now that we have kids, we give them stuff. But we stopped participating in adult gift grabs even before we moved away from family. I just don’t see the point. I’m all for a nice surprise once in a while, but not orchestrated gift grabs. Don’t even get me started about epic adult birthdays or baby/wedding showers. And no, I am married and have 2 kids and had neither a wedding or baby shower.

  • PsyGuy

    I don’t have to drive to a crowded store and wait in line to talk to the CSM who has heard nothing but complaints all day.

  • Dutchess

    Oh so your only reason for NOT returning is because you dislike the crowds? Right….

  • PsyGuy

    No, it’s more the wait and the people, well the crowds of people, the traffic, the finding a parking spot, the rudeness.

  • Zann77

    Our family rule is, if we are going to be with the other family members to open the gifts together, we exchange gifts. If we aren’t getting together in any year, we don’t. Simple.

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