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The Basics

5 tips for successful gift returns

Many stores have loosened their return policies this year, but you still need to pay attention to the fine print. Make it easier on yourself with these pointers.

By SmartMoney

Buyer's remorse may be a rare occurrence this holiday shopping season. It's not just because shoppers will land some great deals; those who buy or receive an unwanted gift will also have a much easier time unloading it than in years past.

Slightly more than half of retailers surveyed by the National Retail Federation say they plan to loosen their return policies on holiday purchases by doing such things as extending deadlines and waiving receipt requirements. (Last year, 35% of retailers softened policies.)

Though the move may seem counterintuitive -- holiday returns are expected to cost stores $47.1 billion this year -- alienating customers by refusing returns can be even costlier. A third of shoppers who encounter problems while returning an item won't come back, reports Gartner, an independent technology market research firm.

The more-relaxed policies are good news for cost-conscious consumers looking to stay within a budget this holiday season, says Jennifer Leach, a spokeswoman with the Federal Trade Commission. Before the holidays, they offer shoppers time to rethink impulse buys or return an item that can be found elsewhere at a lower price. Post-holiday, they're the best bet for exchanging any dud or duplicate gifts.

Just don't get too complacent. Lenient or not, return policies still include plenty of fine print. Here's what you need to know while you shop:

Check for exclusions

Some products may be subject to tighter return policy requirements than other items on the shelves, warns Edgar Dworsky, the founder of consumer advocate site ConsumerWorld.org.

Best Buy, for example, has stuck with its standard return policies on computers while relaxing its policy on everything else. Meanwhile, Amazon's policy doesn't cover anything sold by third-party merchants. (See the list at the end of this article.)

Use the right credit card

Some credit cards, including many Visa Platinum and American Express cards, automatically extend the return period on items you buy to 90 days.

If the store won't accept a return, you can file a claim under your card issuer's return protection program. Most likely, the credit card issuer will agree to take the item and offer you a refund of up to $250.

Mind the deadlines

Plenty of retailers -- including Staples, Steve Madden and shopping channel QVC -- are extending the return periods for items purchased during the holiday shopping season. But since many are offering an either/or time frame (i.e., return by Jan. 31 or two weeks from purchase) the deadlines aren't always so clear.

Online orders may kick off from the time you placed the order or the date the item was delivered -- a difference that could add or subtract a week to your return deadline. Check for the details before you buy, then note the deadline on your calendar.

Watch out for restocking fees

Just because the store will take back a purchase doesn't mean you're entitled to a full refund. Many stores assess a restocking fee, typically 10% to 15% of the total purchase price, or require you to pay for return shipping.

Sears, for example, charges 15% on opened home electronics and special orders, among other items. Laws governing restocking fees vary by state, so check with your attorney general's office or the department of consumer affairs about what's acceptable.

Video on MSN Money

Christmas cash © Tetra Images/Corbis
How to save on holiday shopping
Do like Santa does: Make a list and check it twice.

Hang on to receipts

It goes without saying that if you don't have a receipt you'll have a harder time returning an item. Without one, the best you can hope for is store credit, the FTC's Leach says. (Given the growing number of retailers that are shutting their doors, receiving a store credit may not be the safest option.)

Other retailers may refuse you entirely. Ask for a gift receipt with every purchase, so your recipient isn't stuck either. Hang on to your credit card and store loyalty club statements, too -- some retailers may accept them as proof of purchase in lieu of a receipt.

Continued: Holiday store policies

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