How to Handle Holiday Returns Without Hassle

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Both TJX's (TJX) T.J. Maxx and Marshall's stores realize how far back the holiday calendar has crept and, until Jan. 8, will accept returns on items bought between Oct. 21 and Dec. 9. Asos gives customers until Jan. 31 to bring back all clothing bought after Oct. 1, while Pottery Barn (WSM) has the same deadline for returning items bought from Oct. 15 through Dec. 24. Nordstrom (JWN) , REI, Kohl's(KSS) , Sears' Land's End, L.L. Bean and Gap's (GPS) Athleta are among the few retailers with no return deadline.

Watch those fees

This is usually the time of year when most U.S. consumers learn about the restocking fee, which is basically what a retailer charges you for opening something you didn't want.

Avoiding those fees is as easy as simply not opening the package, but if the damage is done, there are a few retailers who will make you pay dearly for the mistake. Sears will take an even exchange on some opened items, but charges a 15% restocking fee for electronics, missing parts and items clearly used. Amazon has restocking fees of up to 50% on open DVDs, software and worn books, which is generous only when compared with Overstock.com's (OSTK) 60% fee. That site will also outright refuse returns on televisions 37 inches or larger.

Look to third parties for help

Consumer Reports ' ShopSmart notes that credit card companies and other intermediaries can get you a refund if retailers won't.

American Express (AXP) covers purchases made with its card through a return protection program that will refund cardholders up to $300 if a retailer refuses a return within 90 days of purchase. There are a few stipulations, so cardholders may want to check their policy before putting in a claim. For $9 a month or $79 a year, ShopRunner provides free return shipping and organizes online receipts.

Free apps such as ReceiptGuru, Slice, Lemon and Neat can also help organize online receipts and take scans or photos of your paper receipts. They'll let you know when return deadlines are coming up, what the return policies are at various retailers and how you can best use coupons and store credit.

Treat online and in-store purchases differently

While some retailers have begun making items bought on the Web and at their stores returnable to either, others just refuse to mix inventory. Sports Authority is notorious for not accepting returns of items bought online at its stores, but at least it's consistent.

Macy's mix-and-matches return policies from time to time, but won't take area rugs or lighting bought online back at its stores. Ann Taylor already doesn't like the idea of you "wardrobing" its clothes for a holiday party and sending them back, which is why it won't take back swimwear, extended-calf boots or "wedding and events" clothing in-store, and Loft has the same policy for maternity and swimwear items. Gap also has a habit of marking items from OldNavy.com, Gap.com and BananaRepublic.com as "Return by Mail Only," so it pays to read the packaging before making a return.