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Guide to Retailers' Return Policies

We compared standard store return policies to those adopted during the holiday season and identified some standouts. Macy's and Kohl's, for example, win our favor for their lenient return rules all year.

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JC Penney and L.L. Bean likewise earn gold stars for their straightforward and open-ended store return policies regardless of the season. Online retailer Overstock sits at the bottom of the list due to tight restrictions on refunds in general and miserly rules for holiday purchases. This chart summarizes the data we gathered.

We were surprised to find that less than one-third of the retailers we researched offer extra time to return holiday gift purchases. And those that do -- Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, Overstock, Sears, Target, and Walmart -- merely extend the regular return period, which often amounts to 30 days but may be as short as 14 days, into January.

Upon closer examination, however, it became clear that most store return policies are already more generous than the temporary holiday return rules instituted by a handful of vendors in our survey. Five stores on our list -- Bath & Body Works, JC Penney, Kohl's, L.L. Bean, and Macy's -- accept returns year-round for an unlimited period. Twelve retailers -- Cabela's, Foot Locker, Gap, Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe's, Sears, Target, Toys R Us, Victoria's Secret, Walmart, and Zappos -- keep the returns window open far longer than 30 days for many, if not all, items. (Some retailers have different store return policies for different merchandise, which is why Sears, Target, and Walmart show up in two of the groupings above.) GameStop maintains a strict and time-limited policy at all times and makes no allowances for holiday purchases.

Many of the store return policies we reviewed use similar language and outline very similar rules. Some common threads among retailers' standard return policies were easy to pick out. For example, for vendors with both an online and offline presence, returning items bought online to a storefront is generally hassle-free. If you send back an item, the retailer may not allow an exchange for a different product and typically will charge shipping costs against the refund unless the product arrives damaged or in error. A few vendors assess a flat return fee and fewer still (e.g., Foot Locker, if the return is made within 30 days, and Gap) cover the cost of return shipping.

We also found that retailers almost always issue refunds in the same form as the initial payment. In other words, if you paid with cash, you'll get cash back; if you paid with a gift card, you'll receive a new gift card; etc.

Store return policies also contain exceptions. Because of the ease with which someone can rip or install software and copy music, movies, and video games, or just use media for a few days (think ebooks), these items rarely can be returned, although defective copies can be exchanged. Similar store return policies typically prevail for collectibles, such as baseball cards and action figures, whose value drops precipitously once the packaging has been opened. Gift cards, personalized items, hazardous materials and firearms, grocery items, health care products, clearance merchandise, and the like almost never are accepted for return.

Note that most store return policies require a receipt or invoice for a refund. L.L. Bean is an exception to the rule, as is Walmart, where customers returning items in-store can get cash back for purchases under $25, no questions asked. Some retailers, including Best Buy, Cabela's, Bath & Body Works, and JC Penney, often ask for a photo ID when customers return items to brick-and-mortar locations so they can keep an eye out for abuses of their policies. Store return policies occasionally are more lenient when it comes to offering an exchange or granting store credit absent proof of purchase. Cabela's, Bath & Body Works, Kohl's, L.L. Bean, and Walmart, for example, allow this practice. With the proliferation of computerized sales systems, however, many retailers, including Home Depot, Kohl's, Lowe's, and Target, can retrieve past transactions within an allotted time frame if you present the credit card used for the original purchase (sometimes a phone number will do).

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Gift recipients often must follow a slightly different set of store return policies. Upon request many vendors supply a gift receipt that must be presented when visiting the returns window, and gifts ordered online come with an invoice and/or packing slip. Returned gifts almost always qualify for store credit rather than a refund, and normal return shipping policies apply; Walmart offers pre-paid shipping only for a replacement if something is wrong with an item.

Always hold on to the original packaging (including the shipping box) regardless whether you bought the item or received it as a gift. And think twice before tearing the product packaging apart. Many retailers won't take back certain merchandise that's been opened, particularly media items (e.g., video games and music) and jewelry. Other retailers, such as Overstock, Toys R Us, and GameStop, reduce the refund or allow only an exchange for an identical item when the original packaging has been opened. Always, always read the fine print in any store return policy.

For a different take on holiday store return policies, Consumer World highlights changes from prior years for many major retailers.

by Louis DeNicola (Google+ Profile)

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In this review:
  1. Store Return Policies
  2. Store Return Policy Comparison
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