t doesn't work.
It's the wrong color.
It doesn't fit.
Aunt Irene has horrible taste!

Take a number and get in line. Consumers return merchandise for a variety of reasons—most legitimate, some downright dishonest. When it comes to return policies, the more you know ahead of time, the better you'll fare at the return counter. In most states, unless the goods were misrepresented or are defective, stores are free to set their own return policies. You may be offered full refund, an in-store credit, an exchange, no refund at all, or some combination of these options.

Shoppers take back one out of five holiday purchases, twice the return rate for the rest of the year, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. Catalog returns run even higher, amounting to some 30% of holiday sales, says Federation spokesperson Pamela Rucker. "And contrary to popular belief, most retailers bend over backward to see that customers are happy, but customers can do a lot to make the return process easier on themselves. Whether you're giving or receiving," says Rucker, "always know what the store's return policy is. It's usually prominently posted. If not, ask."

Knowledge is power
Most consumers get return policy information by directly asking about it at the store, according to a survey conducted last year for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) in Arlington, Va. Nearly 80% of shoppers are at least somewhat likely to consider the store's return policy before deciding where to shop, but when it comes to specific purchases, only about a third of consumers say they're familiar with specific store return policies before they buy. Arm yourself with knowledge and the shopping savvy to make any future returns hassle-free by following these guidelines:

  • Understand the return policy that covers your purchase. Even stores with liberal policies may impose stricter rules on some purchases. For example, an electronics superstore may cut its regular 30-day return policy to 14 days on computer equipment, digital cameras, radar detectors, and camcorders. It also may charge a 15% restocking fee for all nondefective returns on these products. Rucker says stores have implemented these restrictions to protect themselves from loss due to fraudulent activities.

    Consumers have been known to return camcorders once they return from vacation, and others take back big screen TVs the day after the Super Bowl. To fight the fraudulent return of evening or prom dresses worn once then returned, some stores now won't accept returns on dresses missing prominently placed sale tags.

  • Check out catalog policies. Catalog shopping can be fun and convenient. Keep it that way by paying attention to the company's return policy. Outside the holiday surge, shoppers return only 6% of catalog purchases, according to Catalog Age magazine. Before you buy, read up on who pays for returns and find out if original shipping charges are refundable. Nearly 30% of catalogs always pay for shipping on returns; another 62% pay for returns if they're responsible for the problem.

  • Take care with online purchases. Before you buy online, click on the customer service icon to read about the e-merchant's return policy. Print it out and file it for safekeeping. Does the seller require prior phone/computer approval before you can make returns? Will the seller refund your shipping and handling charges in addition to the purchase price? Will it pay return postage? Is it OK to return something to a brick-and-mortar store location if you bought it off the company's Web site?

    Circuit City, a major retailer of consumer electronics and major appliances, allows consumers to buy online and return locally, according to spokesperson Morgan Stewart. She says you can buy a stereo from its Web site, have it shipped directly to your home and, if it's not what you thought it was, you can bring it to a local Circuit City store for a return, an exchange, or repairs.

  • Keep the receipt. "I can't stress that enough," Rucker says. "It's the ticket to a hassle-free return." When shopping for others, get gift receipts whenever possible. A gift receipt is coded so the store, not the recipient, can figure out how much you spent. Some stores won't accept returns without a receipt; others will but may only grant an in-store credit, an exchange, or give a refund that matches the store's last sale price. This means an item that cost $50 in November might be on sale for $20 after the holidays. Designate a file, envelope, or drawer to hold all holiday receipts—marking the name of the recipient on each receipt to make returns easier.

    When giving a gift, put the gift receipt with the gift, or tell the recipient you have the receipt if he or she needs to return or exchange the gift.

  • Check expiration dates on in-store credits. Don't be doubly disappointed by having to return a gift for credit only to then miss the credit's expiration date. Understand the terms of the credit, and ask if the deadline is firm or can be extended. Also, find out if the store keeps a record of your credit in case you lose your credit voucher.

  • Don't pitch the packaging. This is especially true for small appliances and electronic items. The packaging makes it easier to prove where you purchased the item, Rucker says, and it may save you a restocking fee. Keep the packaging until the return policy lapses or the warranty expires, depending on the store's or manufacturer's policy.

  • Be an early bird. Stores are most crowded on December 26, Rucker says. So get out early if you need to return a gift. Not only will you avoid long lines, you'll get first crack at postholiday markdowns.

  • When in doubt, go to the manager. If you think you're being treated unfairly, or wish to argue for a little more leeway than a clerk is willing or able to offer, ask to speak to a manager. Managers, further up the retail food chain, may care more about keeping customers happy than will an overworked clerk. And they may have more discretion when bending or adapting the rules.

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.