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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 12/26/2007 9:56:39 AM ET 2007-12-26T14:56:39

Whether it’s an unappealing bauble from your Aunt Lucy or an ill-fitting sweater from your grandparents, unwanted gifts may send you running back to retailers after the holidays.

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If you do attempt to return a few duds this year, you’re bound to encounter some store policies that will make you smile – and others that will make you grit your teeth and wish you never bothered. The following tips can help you play the returns game successfully or decide in advance to avoid the game altogether.

1. Pray for a gift receipt. Hopefully the person who gave you your third George Foreman Grill included a gift receipt that has the price embedded in its bar code. If you’re armed with the name of the retailer and this unmistakable proof of purchase, rejoice! You’re well on your way to avoiding potential headaches and run-arounds. Without a receipt, though, you might not be able to return the item at all. (More on this in Tip #3.)

2. Engage in tactful reconnaissance if necessary. Didn’t get a gift receipt from your friend or loved one? Then it’s time to do some sleuth work and figure out where the purchase was made. If you’re positive that you won’t hurt the gift giver’s feelings, simply explain that you need to return the item for whatever reason. But if hurt feelings are a concern, try these questions on for size: “Oh my goodness! Where on Earth did you find this?” “This is so unique – where did you get it?” “Where did you do your holiday shopping this year?”

3. Read the return policy online. Once you know the name of the retailer, you can read up on its specific rules and regulations from the comfort of your own home. Just visit the store’s Web site and tool around until you find the policy for returns and exchanges. Be on the lookout for answers to these sorts of questions: Does the retailer provide extra time for consumers to return or exchange unwanted holiday gifts? Or do its return policies become even more draconian around this time of year? (Some stores will only let you pursue returns for seven days after the holidays.) What will the store do for you if you don’t have a gift receipt? If the item was purchased online, who has to pay the return shipping costs? Can shipping costs be avoided altogether if you return the item at a brick-and-mortar store? Is that even allowed?

4. Go easy with the scissors. If you even suspect that you might not want to keep a certain gift, avoid cutting off any tags or throwing away any packaging or accompanying manuals. Otherwise, you might void the store’s return policy or trigger hefty restocking fees. In fact, when it comes to certain kinds of electronics goods, computers and computer accessories, many stores charge a fee if you attempt to return merchandise after the box has been opened.

5. Brace yourself. Here’s yet another detail to clarify: Just how big of a restocking fee might apply? Be aware that it can be as high as 15 percent of the purchase price – and depending on the item, that can equal hundreds of dollars. Sears, for example, charges such a 15 percent restocking fee on certain appliances, tools, sporting goods, automotive items and lawn and garden items that are not returned in their original boxes with all of their original packaging intact.

6. Know when a trip to the store may be fruitless. Many stores will not allow you to return gift certificates, gift cards, grocery products, gourmet gift baskets, plants, bedding or linens that have been opened, software that’s been opened, undergarments or bathing suits. Granted, you might be able to return some of these items, so it pays to check the store’s return and exchange policy. Just be sure to check first in order to avoid unnecessary frustration.

7. Have you been blacklisted? Here’s another little surprise you might encounter this year: More and more retailers are blocking shoppers deemed to be “serial returners” from returning items at all. The return limits vary from store to store, but they might come into play if you’ve tried to make more than three returns within 45 days or five returns within 90 days. If you’ve mistakenly or unfairly landed on one of these “serial returner” lists, ask to speak with the store’s manager about getting the situation rectified.

8. Take a deep breath. It’s common for retailers to direct all shoppers seeking returns to one central counter – where they might be forced to wait as long as 30 minutes for assistance. If you really want to return an item, walk into the store psychologically prepared to wait patiently in line and persevere. For tips on how to time your trip so as to avoid crowds, you can read my past “10 Tips” column on that subject.

9. Be determined. Approach the return desk with confidence about your mission. If the store clerk turns down your request for a refund or exchange, ask to speak with the store manager. Be aware that most companies allow their managers to make exceptions to the usual return policy.

10. Be nice. Store clerks and other customer-service employees endure a tremendous amount of rude and shoddy treatment from customers – and the long hours they’ve likely had to work in recent weeks may have left them exhausted. Bearing this in mind, remember that a smile and good manners can defuse a potentially unpleasant situation and help you as you negotiate your refund or exchange.

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