Here are some things to know:
Q. How often do consumers return items?
A. It’s substantial. About 18 percent of merchandise sold during the current holiday shopping season is expected to be returned, a 2 percent increase over last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
Q. What do I do if the sweater or hiking boots I received as a gift don’t fit?
A. Check for a gift receipt. It may be in the box along with your gift. A gift receipt is proof of purchase, but, in deference to gift-giving etiquette, omits the amount paid. It allows you to exchange the sweater you received for one more to your liking, without telling the gift-giver. And it guarantees that you get the full purchase price, even if the item has since been marked down. Stores generally don’t allow cash refunds based on gift receipts but will permit an exchange or a store credit.
Q. Do stores automatically provide a gift receipt?
A. No. If you are shopping at a store, ask for one at checkout and tuck it into the box. If you are shopping online and shipping directly to someone, ask to have it included in the package.
If you have ever purchased anything from Amazon, and who hasn’t, you may have noticed the “This order contains a gift” checkbox. Follow the prompts and Amazon will send a digital gift receipt to the recipient after the gift is delivered. (You supply the e-mail address of the gift recipient.)
Q. What if there’s no gift receipt with the gift I want to return?
A. Some stores may be willing to make an exchange even without a receipt, but there’s no guarantee. You could also ask the gift-giver for a receipt.
Q. Are retailers legally required to provide an exchange or refund?
A. Under state law, brick-and-mortar stores can set their own return policies, including “all sales are final,” so long as they “clearly” post it “somewhere in the store” and consumers “have a chance to read it” before making their purchases, according to the state “Consumer Guide to Shopping Rights.”
I’ve discovered a few return policy notices in stores so inconspicuous as to be useless. It might be a good idea to get into the habit of considering how you would return something before you buy it, even if you think it’s perfect. If you don’t see a posted policy, ask at checkout.
Q. Can retailers refuse to accept the return of a damaged or defective item?
A. No, damaged and defective merchandise must be accepted for return, regardless of any posted policy, and you must be given the option of a repair, replacement, or refund, according to the state consumer guide. The sooner you discover the defect and bring or send it back, the more likely things will go smoothly.
Q. I’d rather have a refund than an exchange — can I always get it?
A. No, retailers set their own policies. A refund puts cash in your hands and is obviously preferred. A store credit lets you pick out something you’d like. According to state law, you have up to seven years to use a store credit.
Q. Are online retailers legally required to provide an exchange or refund?
A. Federal law mandates refunds or exchanges of damaged or defective products sold online, the same as for brick-and-mortar stores. But online retailers are not legally required to post their return policies. Still, almost all of the big retailers do. If you find a retailer that doesn’t post its policy, that may be a tip off to shop elsewhere.
Q. Will I get free shipping if I have to send something back to an online retailer?
A. Many of the biggest online retailers continue to offer free return shipping, including Amazon (using drop-off locations), Best Buy, Costco, Home Depot, Target, and Walmart. But an increasing number of retailers now charge for it. Retailers faced higher costs in 2022, just like consumers, and some of them have adopted less generous return policies as a result.
Q. Which retailers charge for return shipping?
A. A few examples: Anthropologie says it will deduct $5.95 from your refund for most mailed returns; REI, $5.99; L.L.Bean, $6.50; and Abercrombie & Fitch, $7, according to their policies posted online.
It’s easy to look up return policies by searching online for the name of the retailer and “returns.” But read carefully. There are lots of contingencies and exceptions.
Q. How can I avoid paying a return shipping fee?
A. Take your return to the retailer’s brick-and-mortar store or other approved location, if possible.
Q. How do I ship a return back to a retailer?
A. Some retailers give you the option to print a label at home and box up the item yourself. Others instruct you to go to a UPS or other location and let them box it up. Some also require you to get pre-approval for a return before sending it back.
Q. How long do I have to make a return?
A. You have to check the fine print. Most retailers require returns in 30 days or less. But many retailers also offer an extended return period during the holidays, allowing items purchased between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 to be returned through Jan. 31. Still, some retailers this year have narrowed the window for returns. Amazon’s extended period, for example, now begins on Oct. 11.
But some remain remarkably generous. LLBean, for instance, allows returns for up to one year after purchase.
Q. Do I need receipts and original packaging?
A. Many retailers require “proof of purchase,” but some stores will look up your purchase without a receipt based on use of a credit card. (That admittedly won’t work if you’re returning a gift.) In general, you’ll have an easier time of it if you have receipts, online order confirmations, and other evidence of purchase.
When you open a gift (even one to yourself) it’s important not to remove tags before deciding whether to keep it. And it makes sense to remove an item from its box carefully in case you have to repackage and send it back.
Q. Do I need to state a reason for returning something?
A. Amazon, for one, will ask, but it’s perfectly acceptable to say you just don’t need or want the item.
Q. What about gift cards?
A. Many of us receive gift cards, but sometimes the card is for a retailer we don’t shop at. If you want to sell your gift card for cash, go to the so-called secondary market online, including the Raise, GiftCash, and CardCash. Of course, you’ll get less than the face value on your card.
Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.