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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/23/2009 6:19:20 PM ET 2009-12-23T23:19:20

Aunt Millie just knew you’d love that sweater. But the size is wrong and the color isn’t you. Taking it back should be relatively simple if you follow the store’s return policy.

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According to a survey by the National Retail Federation 80 percent of holiday return policies are unchanged from 2008, about 17 percent of them are tougher than last year and just under 3 percent have eased the rules.

“Retailers recognize that returns are a cost of doing business,” says federation spokesman Joe LaRocca. “We know that returns help develop a relationship with the consumer.”

Maybe that’s why some big-name retailers made their holiday return policies more lenient this year. In its just-released annual survey, ConsumerWorld.org found some big box stores have extended return deadlines and eased the rules on bringing back items without receipts.

Here are some of the noteworthy changes ConsumerWorld found:

  • Best Buy has extended the holiday return period for most items to Jan. 31. Computers still have the standard 14-day return period. That means if you snagged a great deal on a computer on Black Friday, your return period has already expired.
  • Target now allows refunds on up to $70 worth of merchandise a year without a receipt. You can also exchange items without a receipt for something of equal value.
  • Sears doubled its holiday return period for electronics, software and mattresses to 60 days.
  • Walmart extended the holiday return period for computers, cameras and other electronic items by changing when the clock starts ticking. In the past, it was on the purchase date (Nov. 15 or after). Now it begins Dec. 26.        

ConsumerWorld’s founder, Edgar Dworsky, stresses that most stores no longer have one return policy for all merchandise.

“Retailers continue to slice and dice their policies,” he says. “Different categories of goods have different requirements.”

For example, Amazon.com has a general return policy plus 29 additional  policies that apply to specific categories of merchandise.

At Walmart, shoppers have 15 days to return a computer or GPS device, 30 days for a digital camera, 45 days for computer accessories and 90 days for everything else. For items purchased after Nov. 15 the days don’t start counting until Dec. 26.

Here are some of the unusual policies ConsumerWorld found:

Playing by the rules
You can improve your chances of getting a full refund if you follow a few simple rules. The first is the most important.

1. Think before you open the package
If you don’t want the gift or you’re not sure you will keep it, don’t open it! Break the factory seal on that package and you could get hit with a restocking fee of 10 to 20 percent of the purchase price (or more) when you go to return it. And it’s not just on electronics anymore. Some stores now charge restocking fees for jewelry and watches.

If you do open the box, keep everything intact.

“Stores are likely to refuse a return if you’ve discarded the packaging materials or removed the warranty card or the instruction manual,” says Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks.

And don’t rush to send in for a rebate if you’re required to send in the UPC code. Cut the box to remove that code and you are stuck with that item, like it or not.

In most cases, you won’t be able to return computer software, video games, CDs or DVDs if you open the package.

2. Bring along a receipt
More than ever this year, you are going to need proof of purchase. That means a receipt or gift receipt. With a receipt, you’ll get the full price paid for the item. Without it, the best you can hope for is a store credit for the lowest price the item sold for in recent weeks or months.

“People use to think it was cheesy to give a gift receipt because that means you’re expecting the person not to like it and take it back,” says Jennifer Jolly, who writes The Good Idea Gal blog. “You want to give the right gift, but you also want to give people a little bit of protection if they do need to return something.”

And remember, the gift receipt doesn’t have the price on it.

A survey by the National Retail Federation confirms the acceptance of gift receipts. About 59 percent of the shoppers said they enclose a gift receipt most of the time or some of the time. That’s good, because that little slip of paper reduces a lot of hassles at the return counter.

3. Where can you return it?
If the item was purchased online and the company has brick-and-mortar stores, check the return policy. In most cases, you can bring it back to the store, and that will save you shipping costs. Tod Marks at Consumer Reports notes that L.L. Bean will pay for the shipping if the item was purchased with their credit card.

If you do send something back to an online retailer, make sure you use the return shipping label that came in the box. It has a bar code on it that tells the merchant how much was paid for that item, so you’ll get the full amount.

When all else fails
If you have a problem returning a gift and you believe you are following the company’s policy, ask to speak to the manager or customer service agent. If that doesn’t work, file a complaint with your state attorney general or local consumer protection agency.

If you are trying to get the store to “bend the rules” a bit, ask to speak to the manager, who probably has the authority to override company policy. Don’t be confrontational. You need to be friendly and polite and explain clearly why you are asking for an exception. If you’re a good customer, be sure to point that out. But be tactful about it. Don’t do this the week after Christmas. Wait until the rush is over.

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