Tips on holiday returns

December 23, 2009 No matter how hard you try to find "just the right" gift for everyone on your list, something might be wrong with some or your purchases. If you have to return a gift you bought or received, you can make the process a little easier by following the advice of the Better Business Bureau.


  • Whether shopping online or in stores, consumers should pay extra attention to refund and exchanges policies.
  • Some businesses give refunds; some issue store credits only; some consider all sales to be final.
  • A store is not legally required to accept items for refund, exchange or credit unless the merchandise is defective or was misrepresented.
  • Your Better Business Bureau reminds shoppers to know their return rights before making the purchase. It's always better to ask, than to assume.

  • Most stores require returns to be made within a certain time; some stores allow only seven days to return an item, while other may allow 90 days or say all sales are final.
  • Electronics may need to be returned much sooner, and the specifics can vary depending on the product.
  • Some stores have special holiday policies to give people more time to make returns. Once you find out the policy, consider including the information for the recipient.

  • Always include a gift receipt, which omits the price you paid. This way if the recipient wants to return or exchange your gift, they will receive credit equivalent to what you paid; without a receipt, and if the item to be returned has been marked down, the recipient is stuck with the sale price.
  • Hold on to the receipt if the gift is for immediate family so you can get your money back and buy something else.
  • If you don't have a receipt, larger chains may be able to use your credit or debit card number to look up how much you paid for an item and give you an even return or exchange.
  • Before trying to return a gift, go to the store's website and read the policy to see if you're within your rights. It may save you time and money.
  • If you missed the deadline to return an item a manager may have the ability to accommodate you. Ask if you can receive store credit.
  • Arm yourself with paperwork if you don't have a receipt; bring coupons, store ads, anything that will help you get a deal on exchanges.
  • Ask for gift receipts--don't be afraid to approach a friend or relative for a receipt. Even if it wasn't included with the gift, people may hold on to them.

  • Restocking fees of 15 percent or more may be applied to returns of electronics. Be certain electronic gifts and other large items will not be returned before opening the packaging.
  • If you buy gifts online, shipping and handling charges typically aren't credited back with returns. You may also have to cover the costs to mail the items back.

    Once the big gift exchanges are over this year, you'll probably end up standing in a long line waiting to return a gift or two, says Angie Hicks, founder of consumer ratings service Angie's List and consumer advocate. Returning gifts may seem like an aggravating but necessary evil of the holiday season. But before you hit the stores, it's best to get organized and take steps to make the experience run more smoothly.

    Here are Angie's Five Tips to prevent "Return Rage."

    1. Don't open it if you might return it: Always keep the item in its current packaging. If the item is in sellable condition, it'll be much easier to return.

    2. Check the return policy: Do your homework first to avoid any unnecessary frustration. Check the receipts if you have them, or go online and check the retailer's return and exchange policy.

    3. Check the warranty: If the item is defective, the store may advise you to return it directly to the manufacturer instead of the store.

    4. Hang on to the receipt: These days, most stores automatically provide a gift receipt. If you get a gift without a gift receipt, ask the retailers to help you. Most have the ability to look up transactions within the last month, if not 90 days. Some retailers may offer a store credit.

    5. Don't be a procrastinator: The key to a quick and easy return is to act fast. Store return policies may vary from two weeks to 90 days.

    Mail-In Rebates: Now Available in Paper or Plastic

    Once the excitement of the holidays wears off, people turn to the promised rewards of mail-in rebates. However, the Better Business Bureau advises that it's more important than ever to read the fine print when filing for a rebate because retailers and manufacturers are changing the way they issue rebates.

    According to, retailers and manufacturers are increasingly opting to provide rebates in the form of pre-loaded cards as opposed to paper checks. Unlike checks, which can be deposited in a bank and used to pay bills, consumers must spend the rebate. These cards can often only be used where credit cards are accepted. In most cases, the cards can be used at any merchant—much like a debit card—but some retailers are also handing out rebate cards that can only be used at their stores. The cards may also have expiration dates and added fees that could whittle down their value.

    "Rebates are a great way to get a deal, but they can also be a great source of frustration for consumers," said Steve J. Bernas, president & CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Chicago and Northern Illinois. "By acting quickly to redeem the rebate and reading the mail-in instructions carefully, consumers can significantly reduce any disappointment associated with redeeming rebates."

    In the previous 12 months, 70 percent of consumers have taken advantage of manufacturer rebates on products, according to a recent survey by Consumer Reports. The national telephone survey also found that, of those who applied for a rebate, 21 percent of people were unsuccessful. Typically, consumers didn't receive anything or were turned down because of a technicality.

    The BBB offers the following advice to holiday shoppers on how to make the process of redeeming rebates as painless as possible:

  • Don't wait. Some rebates have a time window in which they can be redeemed or must be redeemed within a certain amount of time following purchase. Waiting also increases your chances of misplacing necessary receipts or packaging.
  • Read the instructions carefully. The guidelines for redeeming a rebate can be extensive and missing steps may delay the process or result in loss of the rebate. Be sure to indicate how you want to receive the rebate—such as if a gift card is the default option—and include all the necessary paperwork and proof of purchase. Also make a point to thoroughly read the fine print details that are included when you receive your rebate card or check in the mail.
  • Keep the packaging. Rebates often require UPC bar codes or other parts of the packaging to be included with the paperwork for processing, so don't throw boxes away until you're sure you don't need them.
  • Make copies of everything. Keep a copy of all the paperwork you mailed back to the retailer or manufacturer for the rebate. It's the only record you'll have of the transaction if anything goes missing.
  • Contact the business if the rebate doesn't arrive. Some retailers and manufacturers use third-party fulfillment companies for processing rebates so keep in mind that you might be dealing with a different business when it comes to tracking down your rebate.
  • Help is available if you need it. If the rebate never arrives or is significantly late, file a complaint with the BBB, the Federal Trade Commission or your state Attorney General.
  • For more advice on being a savvy consumer this holiday season, visit

    Here's more advice from the Better Business Bureau to help protect yourself whenever you shop.

    Online Shopping Tips

    Pay with a credit card - It's best to use a credit card, because under federal law the shopper can dispute the charges if he or she doesn't receive the item. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on their credit card, and many card issuers have "zero liability" policies under which the card holder pays nothing if someone steals the credit card number and uses it.

    Keep documentation of your order. After completing the online order process, there may be a final confirmation page or the shopper might receive confirmation by e-mail – BBB recommends saving a copy of the Web page and any e-mails for future reference and as a record of the purchase.

    Check your credit card statements often – Don't wait for paper statements; BBB recommends consumers check their credit card statements for suspicious activity by either calling credit card companies or by checking statements online regularly.

    Know your rights - Federal law requires that orders made by mail, phone or online be shipped by the date promised or, if no delivery time was stated, within 30 days. If the goods aren't shipped on time, the shopper can cancel and demand a refund. There is no general three-day cancellation right, but consumers do have the right to reject merchandise if it's defective or was misrepresented. Otherwise, it's the company's policies that determine if the shopper can cancel the purchase and receive a refund or credit.

    Using layaway to shop:

    When buying items on layaway, the Better Business Bureau advises consumers to get everything in writing and offers the following checklist of questions to ask:

  • How much time do I have to pay off the item?
  • When are the payments due?
  • How much do I have to put down?
  • Are there any storage or service plan fees?
  • What happens if I miss a payment? Are there penalties? Does the item return to inventory?
  • Can I get a refund or store credit if I no longer want the item after making a few payments?
  • What happens if the item goes on sale after I've put it on layaway?
  • Does the retailer or third-party layaway service have a good Better Business Bureau rating?
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