Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Holiday Gift Returns (But Were Afraid To Ask)

12/19/2016 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2016
Photo illustration by Aren Elliott

Forget the season of giving -- it's the season of returns that could really hurt your bottom line.

The hyper-busy gift return period, typically the week after Christmas, is second only to Black Friday for foot traffic. It's also a taboo topic, because talking about gift returns means we have to admit that some of our presents missed the mark.

But let's go there anyway. Why? Because merchants can make it difficult to return a present. The latest survey of return policies by Consumerworld.org notes some major retailers are tightening their return policies in order to squeeze even more money out of their customers. Among the retailers with the most restrictive rules: Sears and Best Buy.

To avoid getting stuck with an unwanted holiday present, both you and the person giving the gift must take a few simple precautions. And there are steps you should take during the return so that you don't offend the giver and don't lose money.

Preparing for the inevitable

Veteran shoppers like Kathy Palmer know that gift-giving is more art than science, and she's prepared.

"I ask for a gift receipt at the time of purchase," says Palmer, a retired nurse from Martinsburg, W.Va. "When wrapping gifts, I just place the receipt in the box with the gift, sometimes I will even place it in an envelope."

Is there a way to ensure the gift won't be returned? Actually, yes. A gift-registry site like Jifiti.com, which works with companies such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Toys “R” Us and IKEA, allows you to give a present and let the recipient review it before it's given.

"The recipient can accept, modify or change the gift before it's shipped," says Shaul Weisband, one of the company's founders. "That eliminates gift returns."

You can also give cash or gift cards -- options we considered in a previous column. But many people consider those choices cop-outs, because they strip the element of thoughtfulness from the gift-giving. Gift cards also often benefit businesses more than they do customers.

The right way to return a gift

Ready to bring your present back? If the gift came from someone like Palmer, the process is fairly straightforward. Most stores will let you exchange the gift for a different item. The problem comes when there's no paperwork, says etiquette expert April Masini.

"If you don’t have a receipt and want to exchange the gift for a different size, a different model, or something completely different, it’s fine to contact the gift giver and let them know how much you love the gift, but that it’s just a little small and you want to get a larger size," she says. "This allows the gift giver to save face if the gift was regifted or purchased at a sale price they don’t want you to know about, and to offer and exchange it for you. It’s also an opportunity for them to give you the receipt, if that’s no big deal for them. So, always ask."

And ask nicely, she advises.

"The holiday return scene is typically stressful," says Masini. "Be prepared to use your best manners and don’t make your returns during stressful times of the day for you, when you’re likely to blow up at the long wait in line to make a return or strict return policies that you can’t measure up to."

What if they won't take it back? Well, that's where those somewhat restrictive policies come in. It pays to do a little research.

For example, last year Toys “R” Us made headlines for its poorly disclosed holiday return policy, which stated that "most items" bought from Sept. 1 onward could be returned until Jan. 23, except Nov. 1 onward "for video game hardware, cameras, music players, etc. Netbooks, eReaders, etc." Those could only be returned until Jan. 9.

But there are rules -- and there's reality. Shirley Kroot has returned a gift or two, and found that exceptions can be made to any policy, no matter how customer-unfriendly or evenly enforced it seems to be.

"As with every situation, persistence, patience, and politeness usually works," says Kroot, a retired real estate appraiser from Tucson, Ariz. "If it doesn't, start writing letters to the executives. You will win."

How to not get ripped off

Rules for returning merchandise typically don't change during the holiday season, but they can be stretched. There are millions of other savvy customers like Kroot who will prove that true, come January.

But a little insider knowledge helps. For example, it can be useful to know that most return policies are the same whether you're shopping online or in a store. But also, knowing that some large retailers will allow you to return online purchases directly to a store, which allows for a faster exchanges. There's a good reason for that, says Benjamin Glaser, an editor for DealNews.com.

"Returns by mail can be a hassle, with the need to repackage your purchase, bring it to a shipping service, and often pay for the return cost out of pocket," he says.

His advice? Avoid returns by mail if possible.

Also, beware of "restocking" fees for returns, which are common with electronic items, but can appear anywhere. These fees supposedly cover the cost of returning the merchandise to the shelf, but some restocking fees cover much more than that cost, and can enrich the merchant, deter the customer from making a return, or both.

And watch for surprises. Restocking fees can come and go, rise and fall, and other customer-unfriendly policies, like secret return rules, can crop up any time. For all we know, the worst surprises are still ahead. All the more reason to ask before you return this year's holiday gift. Your best move may be the one you must never tell your loved one about: regifting.

Knowing when and how to return your present -- but most importantly, how to avoid the spectacle of post-holiday returns -- may be the key to a peaceful and disappointment-free start to 2017.

Christopher Elliott specializes in solving intractable consumer problems. Contact him with your questions on his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google or sign up for his newsletter.