Everything you wanted to know about holiday returns

Was the holiday gift you received the wrong size, or just not what you hoped for?

The good news is you have extra time to return that ill-fitting sweater or those duplicate games. The bad news? The specifics of many retailers’ return policies don’t usually change just because it’s the holidays.

“As a general rule of thumb, for holiday returns, the only real difference tends to be is you have a longer window for returning the item. Where people maybe get tripped up is that all the other requirements tend to stay in place,” said Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing with DealNews.

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Some stores, like Nordstrom, LL Bean and Kohl’s have fairly consumer-friendly exchange policies, but other retailers like the Apple Store, Best Buy and Sears have rigid policies, and some may have a restocking fee on certain items, said Sakraida and Donna Rosato, money editor for Consumer Reports.

If you have a return, check the store’s website so you understand the policy ahead of time. That may save you time and effort when trying to bring something back. Sakraida and Rosato offered tips on how to make returning a gift less of a hassle.

Bring a receipt. Having the receipt will make the exchange much less stressful, they said. Returning an item right away with the receipt in hand will most likely result in you getting cash back, Sakraida said.

“If you go outside of that (holiday return) window, many do really push for store credit because that’s their store policy,” she said.

If you don’t have a receipt, you may only get store credit and you also may only get back the lowest price the item sold for recently, Rosato said.

If the product was bought online, it may be a bit harder to return since any exchanges are usually tied to the buyer’s account, Sakraida said. Most retailers that have physical and online presences are fine with returning a product bought online to their bricks-and-mortar location, she added.

If you’re trying to return seasonal items, like holiday decorations, without a receipt, customer service agents might give you the side eye, Sakraida said. “Stores really don’t want to have those items returned because they are very difficult to move when you’ve returned them. Sometimes it’s met with a bit of skepticism, like if you bought it to use it and returned it,” she said.

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Bring ID. Don’t be surprised (or offended) if a store asks to see an ID when you’re making a return, especially if you don’t have a receipt. It’s a way for stores to combat theft, as some thieves try to return a stolen item and get cash for it, Sakraida said.

Rosato said some chains, including Best Buy and Victoria’s Secret, use computerized return-authorization systems to detect abuse. “Merchants scan and store data from your ID to track your history, noting such factors as the frequency of your returns, their dollar value, how often you return items without a receipt, and the time between returns,” she said.

Don’t open the box. Leave on tags, keep boxed items — especially electronics — intact if you think you might return it. Opened merchandise may be subject to a restocking fee, often 15 percent of the purchase price, Rosato said. For products like software and games, retailers may not take back opened items unless they’re defective.

Go early and be nice. Tensions can run a little high in stores after the holidays, so it pays to be nice to store employees and go early if you need to return something.

“One of the biggest tips I would give someone for returning something after the holidays is to do whatever you can to have a good, positive interaction with a customer service agent,” Sakraida said.

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Try to go early, when the store has just opened and it’s not busy yet. If customer service agents aren’t swamped, they may be a little more accommodating in helping you, even if you don’t have a receipt. When they have time, they may be able to look up the purchase if it was made with a credit card. They also might have a little bit of flexibility within the return policy, she said.

Agents are trained to help customers get what they need, but that can be harder at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday when there’s a long line of aggravated people, she said.

“Customer service people definitely take a beating, as shoppers tend to come in with their own personal frustrations and take it out on one person when they’re frustrated with the store at large. And the agents have to grin and bear it. I think they’re appreciative when people are reasonable,” she said.

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