Return policies can vary by store, so ask before purchasing
It's a $46 billion industry, and chances are you'll contribute a little to it yourself in the days following Christmas or another holiday.
It's the antithesis of holiday shopping: returns. And businesses are likely to see even more of them this year as more shoppers are thinking about bringing back a gift even before the bow or wrapping has been undone.
Experts say retailers walk a fine line offering flexible return policies while not making it too easy for unscrupulous shoppers to game the system. Shoppers should take note of return policies.
"Hocking all the loot can sometimes be a strong attraction," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of the Internet resource site Consumer World. "But critical is knowing the return policy, and that changes every year."
The National Retail Federation says most stores aren't making adjustments to return policies, but about 7 percent are tightening them.
In some cases, return policies have become a convoluted mess of dates and time periods.
"Walmart kind of started this a few years ago, with groupings of items at specific return days — 30, 60 or 90," said Dworsky, who annually surveys retailers for their holiday return policies. "It's the slicing and dicing of returns."
Return policies at Target stores are this year's most significantly different, reducing for the second time in two years the period for major electronics such as computers, cameras and GPS units. What was once a 45-day return, down from 90 days, is now a 30-day return.
"The company softened that by counting the return date from Christmas Day, no matter when it was purchased before then," Dworsky said. "But a return policy is a 12-month affair, so after the holidays, it's simply 30 days."
Sears stores have also changed their policy, creating a new 60-day return for items such as major appliances, which once had a 90-day term. For the holidays, the 60 days begin Dec. 25 for an item purchased between Nov. 11 and Dec. 24, and can be returned the later of 60 days or Jan. 24.
Toys-R-Us is one retailer to ease its restrictions, accepting electronics for return even if a package has been opened. Previously, opened packages were not accepted.
And online giant Amazon has eliminated the 30 different product-specific return policies it once had.
The NRF says much of the restrictions can be tied to the ugly side of the return business: fraud, which costs an estimated $2.9 billion.
"Innocent consumers often suffer because companies have to look for ways to prevent and detect all types of crime and fraud in their stores," said Rich Mellor, NRF vice president of loss prevention. "Oftentimes, they'll resort to shorter return windows and limitations on the types of products that can be returned."
The most common fraud is the return of stolen merchandise, followed by "wardrobing," where a consumer purchases an item such as a party dress or video camera for a weekend, then returns it after the needed event.
"It's a very real problem we all suffer for," Dworsky said.
Be sure to ask about a store's policy. Some might not accept items if purchased at an outlet or from an online affiliate.
David Migoya: 303-954-1506, email@example.com twitter.com/davidmigoya
Avoiding unhappy moments with a return:
Keep all receipts. Write latest return date on the back.
Expect a store credit or exchange. Few will offer cash.
Be sure all UPC bar codes are still on the box. Missing codes indicate fraud.
Be wary of online returns. Get an authorization number before shipping items back.
Keep all original packing. A missing manual can mean rejection.
Wait until after the holidays to avoid crowded return lines.
Source: Consumer Reports
Some return policies
Best Buy:Jan. 24 for most purchases after Nov. 3.
Macy's:Furniture within three days; mattresses within 60. No deadline otherwise.
Sears:90/60/30 days depending on item. Jan. 24 for 30/60-day items. Report damage within 72 hours or refund can be rejected.
Office Max:30 days, but items no longer stocked are excluded.
Target:90 days, but most electronics are 30 days, counting from Christmas Day.
Walmart:90 days, except electronics (15 days) and some machinery (30 days).