5 Tips for Painless Returns During the Holidays

December 17, 2010

Retailers are walking a fine line this year between offering customer-friendly return policies and protecting themselves from fraud.  On one hand, they want to entice shoppers, but on the other hand there has been a massive increase in what the National Retail Federation calls “return fraud”- a recent NRF survey found that retailers expect $3.7 billion in sketchy returns this holiday season – an increase of $1 billion over last year.

“Retailers are still struggling to find the appropriate balance between providing stellar customer service for their shoppers while prohibiting criminals from taking advantage of lenient return policies,” said the NRF’s Joe LaRocca. “Combating this very costly problem helps retailers keep prices low but can unfortunately involve establishing policies that inconvenience honest shoppers.”

So how can the morally upright among us make the return process as painless as possible?

Hang on to that receipt and read the fine print.

Many retailers are having a problem with the attempted return of stolen goods, so more and more are requiring a receipt for returns and even exchanges. Be sure to hang on to your receipt and get a gift receipt for gifts when you can. Often, you’ll find the return policy details on the receipt itself – be sure to check those out to avoid headaches. Seems logical, but Consumer Reports says that 46% of shoppers don’t bother to check a store’s return policy before they buy – especially during the holidays, when shoppers are in a hurry and lines are long.

“Shoppers should beware of how retailers are dividing return policies to fit different categories,” says retail expert Kevin Strawbridge, president of online coupon site DealTaker.com. “In other words, read the small print as they may have more rules for a certain category of products that may reduce value if opened or used – for example, electronics and opened goods may have limited return rights, or retailers may charge a restocking fee.”

2. Leave the tags on and the box sealed

“There seems to be an emerging trend where people are “borrowing” – consumers buy and return goods after a single use,” Strawbridge says. “Perhaps that is why even though return policies have become more lenient in terms of extending the days, some retailers are adding additional restocking fees and fees for opened items to thwart return fraud,” he cautions.

3. Try online shopping

A recent article in SmartMoney pointed out that because it’s so easy to shop by lowest price online, some e-tailers have had to differentiate themselves by offering more generous return policies – sometimes even including free return shipping. This is particularly true for items that may be tricky to guess size (clothes, shoes) or items a shopper may want to try out before making a final decision.

“It has been our experience that when customers are shopping for something online that requires a certain degree of “seeing it live,” it is absolutely vital to offer a return policy that takes this into consideration,” says Mike Feiman, president of PoolDawg.com, a site that sells pool cues – a clever gift, but something the recipient might want to try out in person. Brett Brohl of Scrubadoo.com advises, “I would tell consumers to check a site’s return policy thoroughly, look for hidden costs (return shipping, re-stocking fees, etc.), and don’t be afraid to give the store a call and ask what the policy is. If it isn’t easy for the store to explain then you may want to think about looking somewhere else.”

4. Use a credit card

Though using plastic magic might be trouble for the budget-challenged, it can be helpful if there’s an issue with a return. Some stores can track your purchase with the credit card you used (helpful if you didn’t hang on to the receipt) and using a credit card does offer some types of protection in the event of a dispute with a merchant.

5. Be careful with rebates

Technically, this doesn’t fall under the category of returns, but it can still be a sore spot for consumers.  “Companies dangle rebates as bait and then there’s some fine print, or the rebate is just flat-out denied or never sent out,” says Sally Treadwell of PeopleClaim.com, an online legal resolution site.  Be sure to read the fine print, follow directions exactly, keep copies of all your documentation and follow up if you haven’t received your cash back within the specified time.