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How to Handle Holiday Returns Without Hassle

Tickers in this article: AMZN M SHLD TGT WMT
PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- When stores had Black Friday sales in July and offering holiday discounts in October, nobody was considering whether those gifts could be returned in late December.

Now it's time for disgruntled gift recipients to find out.

A Consumer Reports survey found that one in five Americans, or nearly 50 million, expected to return a Christmas gift last year. Roughly the same percentage of all adults were stuck with a bad gift the year before, though 18% donated the offending present, 15% re-gifted it and 22% either returned it or just threw it out.

That led to 9.9% of all holiday purchases being returned to retailers last year, up 9.8% from a year earlier and a scant 8.8% back in pre-recession 2007. In all, consumers brought back $46.3 billion in presents last year, a significant increase from the $39.7 billion in products they returned five years ago.

That's a small Christmas miracle, considering how much easier presents were to return half a decade ago. About 83% of retailers aren't tweaking their return policies this year, according to a National Retail Federation holiday survey, but that's only after 25% tightened restrictions in 2006 and another 17% made returns more difficult during the recession-hit 2008 holiday season. Another 7% tightened restrictions this year.

With policies changing, restocking fees increasing and the odds stacking up against consumers with returns, is there any easy way to get rid of a bad gift? With help from consumer experts, we came up with five ways to attack holiday returns and leave with the gifts you actually wanted:

Keep an eye on the calendar

As soon as you leave the store with a present, you start the countdown to its return date.

Target (TGT) , for example, has cut its return window for laptops, e-readers, tablets, cameras and camcorders from 45 days to 30 this year. Sears (SHLD) , meanwhile shortened its regular return window for many items from 90 days to 60 days and cut its extended holiday return period from 120 days across the board to 30- and 60-day categories that can be returned until Jan. 24.

Wal-Mart's (WMT) return policy is 90 days for most items, but the clock doesn't start ticking on goods bought after Nov. 1 until Dec. 26. After that, you have 15 days to return products such as computers, cameras and GPS devices and 30 days for a second-tier category that includes garden supplies, hardware and other goods. Macy's (M) has no return deadline for most goods, but customers have exactly three days to take back a piece of furniture.

This year, some retailers have put time back on the clock and made it worth a consumer's time to give return policies another look. Best Buy (BBY) extended its regular policy 60 days for some members of its Reward Zone program, while Toys R Us now offers its 45-day electronics return policy even if the package has been opened -- which not the case a year ago. The biggest change came from Amazon (AMZN) , which did away with its 30 category-specific return policies and implemented a flat Jan. 31 return deadline for most items shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.