Return policies get harsher at many retailers

Dec. 22, 2011 at 7:43 AM ET

Adam Hunger / Reuters file /
It's a good idea to acquaint yourself with the store's current -- and temporary -- return policies. And passing along gift receipts with the present is also recommended.

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

There’s a good chance you’ll get at least one Christmas or Hanukkah present you could live without. What can you expect when you take that item back to the store?

“People will find some returns more difficult this year, and only a few will be easier,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of “That may come as a nasty surprise to some people.”

In fact, the National Retail Federation says about 13 percent of stores tightened the rules for certain merchandise, especially electronics.

Based on ConsumerWorld’s annual return policy survey, Dworsky says Target made the biggest change. Last year, shoppers had 90 days to return computers, cameras and camcorders. Now these items must be returned within 45 days. Target dropped its 15 percent restocking fee, but it may deny a refund altogether if the box has been opened.

“It is surprising to see Target tighten its return policy because historically they have had one of the easiest and most generous policies in retailing,” Dworsky tells me.

Other notable findings from the ConsumerWorld survey:

  • Sears also shortened the window for holiday returns for computers from 60 to 30 days. Fine jewelry must be returned within 60 days, down from 90.
  • Wal-Mart reduced the return period for cameras from 30 to 15 days. But they don’t start counting those days until December 26. Wal-Mart also expanded its holiday return policy to cover anything purchased as early as Nov. 1.
  • Best Buy shortened its return period by one week. It’s now Jan. 24 instead of the end of month, unless you’re a Reward member.
  • Toys R Us continues a policy started a few years ago. If you buy an electronic item and open the package, you cannot get a refund or make an exchange.
  • has a standard return policy but also 29 different product-specific return policies.
  • At, large TVs are not returnable. The restocking fee for some open, used or late items is as much as 60 percent.

Confusion at Sears

Last week, the company changed the “Returns and Cancellations" page on its website.  In November, highlighted the “Holiday Extended Return Policy” of up to 120 days on most purchases made between Nov. 13 and Dec. 10.

That information is now gone, replaced by Sears’ normal return policy:  30 or 90 days depending on the item.

How is someone who receives a gift purchased during that extended holiday return period supposed to know they have more time to bring it back if the information is not on the website?

In an email response, the company’s public relations firm explained that the Sears extended holiday return policy “was a limited-time offer” and once it expired it was removed from the site. 

Dworsky calls this response “crazy,” and I agree with him. While the offer was limited to purchases made during a specified time period, the return privilege still applies to those items and should be posted.

Rules to remember for happier returns

Don’t break the factory seal on an electronic item if you think you might return it. That will help ensure you get full value for it.

In most cases, if your gift was purchased online and the retailer has a brick-and-mortar store, you can return it there. But that’s not always the case. For example, at the Sports Authority if your gift was purchased on their website you cannot bring it back to the store. Be sure to check.

If the present came with a gift receipt, bring it. That way you’ll get exactly what the gift-giver paid for it. Otherwise, you’ll probably get the lowest recent price.

Small stores may have much tougher return policies. They may say “all sales are final” or only give a merchandise credit. They may require a sales receipt. Most states let stores set whatever policy they want. If the item is defective a store should repair it, replace it or give you a refund. Chances are they get to choose among the three options, not you.

And don’t be surprised if a store requires you to show some form of ID to accept the return. Some large stores now track returns in a database to stop excessive returns and catch return fraud.


2011 Holiday Return Policies Survey (

Return Fraud to Cost Retailer $3.5 Billion This Holiday Season (National Retail Federation)