Take that back: The ultimate guide to a product return

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Christopher Elliott

If you’ve ever tried to return a product to Apple or Amazon, then you probably know how Shirley Justice feels.

Most product returns are uneventful. You send the item back in its original packaging, you get a refund or exchange. 

But not Justice’s.

She bought an Apple Watch Series 7 from Amazon on Prime Day, Amazon’s 48-hour sale. But Amazon sent her a dead watch. She returned the timepiece, but Amazon sent her another Apple watch that didn’t work.

Justice then asked for a refund, but Amazon refused. The reason? She had too many returns. Seriously. I’m not making this up.

So how do you return a product the right way? We get many questions about Apple and Amazon returns, so I’ll focus on the oddities and complexities of product returns. I’ll also offer a few foolproof strategies to ensure your next product return is successful. And I’ll let you know what happened to Justice’s Apple Watch return. 

What’s the problem with this Apple product return?

Justice had been thinking of buying an Apple Watch for a while because her daughter is a big fan of the product. So when the Apple Watch Series 7 went on sale for $329 through Amazon, she was ready to buy.

Unfortunately, neither Apple nor Amazon was ready for her. 

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The first watch she received wouldn’t power up. After hours of troubleshooting, she returned the gadget to Amazon. The company promptly sent her a replacement. But it didn’t work either.

Justice thought it wasn’t meant to be, so she decided to request a refund. Amazon refused. It sent her the following response about her Apple product return:

We are contacting you about the return of the Apple Watch Series 7.

Our returns department advised us that they received an incorrect item. 

We are discarding the INCORRECT ITEM that you sent. We expect and understand an occasional problem with a return. However, there have been repeated problems with returns on your account.

We cannot issue a refund for this order until we receive the correct item. Please return it to us if you want to receive the refund.

We will have to re-charge you for the returns if not received at our fulfillment center.

Justice had no idea what Amazon was talking about. She says she spent hours on the phone with Apple support trying to get the watch to turn on. A technician speculated that Amazon had sent her two refurbished watches that no longer worked. Justice says she returned the watches she received from Amazon in their original boxes.

“I simply want a credit for the returned Apple Watch,” she says. 

How to handle an Apple product return

So what is the Apple product return policy? 

Apple has some of the strictest return policies in the industry. You only have 14 days to return your product, except during the holidays, when Apple has an extended return window (from November to the first week of January). You can return items even if you’ve opened the box within the return window.

The Apple product return policy is even stricter for Apple Watches from the Edition collection. You can only return or exchange them in their original, undamaged and unmarked condition, and they have to pass an inspection at Apple’s offsite facility.

You don’t even need a receipt to return an Apple product. Select the “return a gift” option on your account (the option for customers who don’t have proof of purchase). Apple tracks purchases with a serial number.

Here’s how to handle an Apple product return:

Go to the Apple website

If you bought your Apple product directly from Apple, click on “Account” in the lower navigation bar. Select the “Apple Store Account” link and then log in using your Apple ID and the password associated with your account. Enter your information and click the arrow button to log in.

Find your returns label 

You can do that by navigating to the “Order Listing” page, where you’ll see your recent Apple orders. Find the order you want to return and select it. Then select the “Start a Return” option. Once you’ve chosen the items you need to send back, click “Initiate Your Return” to get your shipping label. Print your return label and attach it to your parcel.

Take a picture of the return

We receive many cases where the company claims a customer did not send the correct item back. So the last step before sending your item is to take a photo of the package, the item and the label. Document everything.

How to handle an Amazon product return

Amazon’s product return policy is a little bit more complicated. Generally, Amazon.com and most third-party sellers on the site allow returns for items within 30 days of receipt of shipment.

However, Amazon has a long list of products you can’t return. It includes laptop and desktop computers more than 30 days after delivery, hazardous materials, downloadable software products, and more. Amazon also doesn’t accept returns for items fulfilled by third-party sellers.

For the 2022 Holiday Season, Amazon has an extended return period. You can return most items purchased between October 11 and December 25 until January 31, 2023.

How to handle your Amazon product return:

Go to the Amazon site

Click on the returns page to initiate the process. Amazon will prompt you to enter an order number. You can also initiate a return by navigating to your account, clicking “Orders” and selecting “Return or replace item.”

Print a return label or return the item to an Amazon locker

You can print a return label and follow the directions for returning the item. You can also return the item through an Amazon locker at a Whole Foods store.

Take a picture of your Amazon product return

You know the drill. Again, the last step before sending your item is to take a photo of the package, the item and the label. Again, document everything.

Try these pro strategies for a smoother product return

Product returns are supposed to be quick and painless. Here are a few strategies for ensuring they are.

Review the return policy before you buy

Some products, such as appliances, are sold “as is” — without a warranty — and can’t be returned. I have more on warranties in my ultimate guide to getting a repair, replacement or refund for your broken appliance. You’ll want to know about the warranty before you buy. Do not throw away the box and packaging unless you are certain you’ll keep the product. The box may be necessary for a return.

Choose your method of return

Generally, there are two ways to return a product — online or in person. The merchant will only authorize a return if it is willing to accept the product. But you can try to return the product to the store at any time. Before you try either, take a minute to review the return policy again. If your product qualifies for a return, then bring it back using the method that suits you. For example, it may make more sense to drive back to the store and ask for a refund or return, instead of requesting a return label and visiting a UPS store.

Follow all the instructions

This is particularly important with online returns. Merchants will offer detailed instructions on how to return the product. They will specify the preferred return label, box, packaging and how they want the product prepared for shipping. If you are returning a product in person, you’ll also need a receipt, and they may request the original box. Skipping even one of these steps may invalidate the return and force you to keep a product you don’t want.

Expert return strategies

A lot can go wrong when you try to return a product. Packages get lost. Merchants may also claim you returned the wrong product, as they did for Justice. Here’s how to avoid that.

  • Take a photo of the product. Get photos of everything — the box, the packaging, the serial number and the product (from all angles). You may need to prove that you sent the product back to the company at some point.
  • Take a picture of the box and return label. This is important: You may also need to prove that you sent a box back to the company, so you will need a photo of the box with the return label on it, including the barcode and product SKU. Sometimes, the boxes get damaged during shipping, so make sure the photos show the undamaged box.
  • Get a tracking number and follow along. Make sure you verify that the product arrived at the company warehouse. Keep meticulous records and make copies of the records. Again, our experience has shown that companies often lose return records and then blame the customer.

But the best product return strategy is none at all. Do your research and buy the correct product, allowing you to avoid the hassle of a return.

Warning: Product returns can get complicated

We’ve been dealing with product returns for years. They can quickly turn complicated, particularly when there’s a third party involved.  

A few years ago, for example, I advocated an eBay case where a third party decided to keep a product return and the money. In that situation, our advocacy team had to lean on eBay to do the right thing.

Also, for some reason, Apple products tend to get lost in the mail when customers try to return them. Consider this case where one of our readers tried to return two iPhones to AT&T. The company claimed they were lost, even though the phones had arrived at its warehouse.

These collective experiences have led us to one rule about product returns. And that is: There is no such thing as a simple product return. They’re all complicated. 

Things can quickly go sideways unless you take precautions — and lots of photos. 

What went wrong with these Apple watch returns from Amazon?

I was skeptical about a customer receiving two broken Apple Watches from Amazon. At first, I thought this was a user error and that she had tried to return two perfectly good gadgets to Amazon. 

But then I asked her for the correspondence between her and Amazon. She went through all of the troubleshooting steps for her Apple Watch that I would have recommended. 

“I could not get the watch to come on,” she told me. “I spent time on the phone with my daughter, who has had an Apple Watch for several years. Even with her advice and trying three Apple chargers, I could not get the watch to charge.”

After two hours on the phone with Apple, she says a supervisor told her she had a refurbished watch. (She had purchased a new one.) 

I suggested she contact one of the Amazon executives I listed on this site. She did, but never heard back from anyone.

That’s highly unusual. Amazon almost always responds quickly to customers, especially when it comes to product returns. Justice’s account had been flagged for multiple returns, but even a cursory review of her case would have shown that the returns were justified. 

So I contacted Amazon on her behalf.

A few days later, she received the following update:

My name is Monika and I am a member of the Amazon Account Services team.

I’ve reviewed your e-mail, and I understand you’re concerned about the return issue.

We have requested a refund of 329 USD to the original payment method used on your order. You will be able to see the refund on your respective account statement in the next 4-6 business days.

We appreciate your patience and understanding in this case.

“What can I say?” Justice said to me in an email. “Thank you!”

I’m always happy to help. And it’s nice to see Justice get a little justice in the end.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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