Chances are by this time next week, you will have spent some time in a retailer’s return line.
And you won’t be alone. As a nation, we are really bad at picking gifts for other people.
According to the National Retail Federation, the total amount of merchandise returned annually adds up to a whopping $270 billion in lost sales.
“This size is overwhelming. If merchandise returns were a company, it would rank No. 3 on the Fortune 500,” said an NRF report last year.
About 20 percent of the annual return total — some $58 billion — was done during the holiday season last year, NRF estimated. That’s about 10 percent of total holiday sales.
The NRF also estimates, based on a retailer survey, that almost $9 billion of that total — or around 3 percent — is in fraudulent returns.
So even though fraud isn’t a huge problem, it’s significant enough to keep retailers from opening the flood gates on their return policies.
An annual return policy survey done by ConsumerWorld.org found that some retailers are making returns easier this year by offering longer return periods and free shipping.
But most retailers have kept their return policies the same as last year — meaning a special return deadline for gifts purchased in November until mid- to late-January, well beyond what’s allowed during the rest of the year.
“If shoppers follow the rules, they should have many happy returns,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld, a consumer resource guide. “But since the rules vary so much from store to store, you really have to read the fine print.”
The complexity of return policies is underscored by their sheer length. The underlying policies of the dozen stores in the survey span some 45 pages, totaling more than 20,000 words.
Leading the pack as both generous and restrictive is Walmart, Dworsky said.
Those without a receipt can get either a cash refund at Walmart for purchases under $25, a gift card for the amount for purchases over $25 or an even exchange for the product.
But if a customer has returned more than three items without a receipt within 45 days, the Walmart cash register will automatically flag the transaction for a manager to approve the return.
Here are some trends Dworsky and other consumer advocates found this year.
Free shipping to return online purchases. Target, Saks, Old Navy, Gap and Nordstrom will all pay the postage for returned items. Other retailers, such as Macy’s, Amazon, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, give that offer with some exclusions.
Extended return periods. Sears widened its holiday return window for purchases as early as Nov. 9, while Marshalls and T.J. Maxx extended the deadline to Jan. 23 and Staples to Jan. 17. Average return windows throughout the rest of the year are typically 30 days.
No deadline. Kohl’s and L.L. Bean have no deadline for returns. Costco has the same policy except for televisions, computers and other electronics. Macy’s has no return deadline except for some furniture and mattresses. Bath &Body Works also has no time limit and will issue a full refund to customers with a receipt through an exchange or store credit. Those without a receipt can receive store credit based on the current price of an item. J.C. Penney lets customers with a receipt exchange most items any time or receive a refund of the purchase price on the original method of payment. (Exceptions include furniture, jewelry and electronics, which must be returned within 60 days.)
Don’t remove the tags. Both Express and Bloomingdale’s require some clothing to be returned with tags in place to avoid “wardrobing,” or wearing the outfit once and trying to return it.
Avoid the crowds. Don’t fight the crowds on the day after Christmas. Wait a day or two to make your return.
Take sales receipts. To improve your chances of getting full credit, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, return the item in new condition, unopened and with all packaging material. Returns without a receipt could result in only a merchandise credit for the lowest recent price or possibly no refund or exchange at all, depending on the store’s policy.
Bring your ID. Some companies require a government-issued ID with a receipt so they can track serial returners even if the transaction is in cash.
Extra fees. If you are returning any electronics or an item that has been opened, be prepared to pay a restocking fee of up to 15 percent of the purchase price. Consider selling the item online for the full cost to avoid paying the extra fee.
Talk to a manager. If you have a problem returning a gift, contact the store manager or customer service department of the retailer. If you can’t get satisfaction, file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office at 800-621-0508 (www.TexasAttorneyGeneral.gov) or the Fort Worth Better Business Bureau at 817-332-7585 (www.bbb.org/fort-worth).
Sources: ConsumerWorld.org. Consumer Reports