Smooth sailing advice for returns and exchanges

Dec. 26 is a big day for after Christmas sales, but it is a bigger day for gift returns and exchanges. About one third of consumers will return at least some portion of their holiday gifts. Better Business Bureau serving Upstate New York reminds consumers it’s very important for each of us to know our rights and individual store policies.

“BBB will receive hundreds of complaints following the holidays because consumers will not be able to return a gift,” said Warren Clark Better Business Bureau President of Upstate New York. “Many retailers offer returns as a means of customer service, which means return policies differ from store to store. Companies are not required by law to offer a return but New York state does require they post their return policy. For these reasons and others it’s very important for consumers to understand individual store policies.”

Consumers will find many stores trying to make refunds easy, however several will have special holiday policies with limited return dates and other big-name retailers have tightened up the rules a bit this year, according to a survey released by

Consumer World found shorter return periods at three major retail chains:

Best Buy shortened its holiday return period by nine days (now Jan. 15 instead of Jan. 24). The store had already cut its regular return period in half (from 30 days to 15 days) for most customers back in March. Special orders are no longer refundable.

Toys R Us introduced an extended holiday-return period for most items until Jan. 25, but shortened the return window (from 45 to 30 days) on certain electronics purchased on or after Nov. 1. The deadline for returning cameras, camcorders, digital audio players, video game hardware, DVD players or no-contract cell phones given as Christmas gifts is Jan. 9.

Sears shortened its regular return policy for major appliances and vacuums from 60 to 30 days, and excludes them from its extended holiday return period.

Other retailers, like Amazon, have noteworthy or unusual return policies.

The BBB recommends the following tips for smooth returns and exchanges:

Use your Smartphone to keep Receipts. Those little pieces of paper are your sole proof-of-purchase so it’s always important to hang onto them. Our smartphones can help us go paperless. A handful of receipt-tracking apps now offer new ways to track expenses, allowing you to capture receipts and file them on the fly. The apps fall into two categories: those from-third party providers such as Shoeboxed or OneReceipt, and others from the credit card issuers themselves.

Monitor the ‘return clock’. The ‘return clock’ started ticking the day your gift was purchased, not the day you received it. Many retailers may only allow returns within a certain time frame and that time frame usually begins when the item is purchased, not when it is given. It’s up to you to verify your purchase with a receipt or credit card statement and know when the returns are accepted by, which is generally 30 days from the date of purchase.

Don’t open packaged gifts. When in doubt, hold off on the scissors. Packaged toys, house wares or electronics can be difficult to return once opened, unless of course the item is damaged. Most stores have several requirements for handing over a full refund and the first one is keep the box sealed.

Beware of restocking and shipping fees. Some merchants charge a restocking fee for returns of electronics products or large-ticket items. Will you have to pay a return shipping fee? If you bought online, policies should be posted on the retailer’s site. Some merchandise can be returned to a store instead of the online merchant.

Time your returns. Return lines can be lengthy the day after Christmas, but don’t wait too long to return items. Pick a time when the store is unlikely to be crowded, and be polite when talking to customer service clerks. If you are a regular customer or have a store credit account, mention that as you discuss return options. Merchants are usually willing to accommodate loyal customers.

Keep in mind each year billions are lost in return fraud, this year estimated at $3.4 billion, according the National Retail Federation. This crime drives costs up for all of us to bear.