NEW YORK » Not all gifts are created equal, especially at the return counter.
Return policies have grown more complicated by the year, with stores imposing specific terms, fees and deadlines on different products. That could lead to maddening encounters at the register when it comes time to return that fish tie or leg-shaped lamp.
Stores try to ease the headaches by relaxing policies this time of year. But the looser rules might not apply to your particular gift.
Here’s what you need to know to avoid a post-holiday retail hangover:
A Policy For Each Product
The bigger the seller, the more dizzying the return policies are likely to be. Amazon.com and Walmart list more than a dozen product-specific policies.
In general, jewelry and electronics are subject to much shorter deadlines, and anything bought on sale can be difficult to take back. Big-box stores also tailor rules for categories such as clothing or items for the home.
Was that unwanted gift bought online? It is best call ahead or check the store’s website before leaving the house. The same rules might not apply as for in-store purchases.
Return policies tend to be more elaborate for items bought online because there are no space restraints on listing terms and conditions in cyberspace, said Edgar Dworsky, who runs ConsumerWorld.org, a website that compiles an annual survey of store return policies.
Differences between online and brick-and-mortar product lines and discounts also can lead to varying rules on returns.
The Holiday Factor
Retailers try to spread the cheer beyond the holidays, with about a third extending return deadlines far into January, according to the National Retail Federation. That doesn’t mean every gift you receive will be eligible.
Holiday return policies apply to purchases made between specific dates, typically sometime between November and Christmas. But the time frame can vary, and if your gift wasn’t purchased during the specified period, you could be stuck. And there might be no leniency for certain types of gifts.
Another bonus during the holidays is the relaxation of rules regarding receipts. Given the likelihood that a receipt may have been lost or not included with your gift, stores often don’t require receipts for returns and exchanges immediately following the holidays, said Joe LaRocaa, spokesman for the National Retail Federation. In most cases, however, it will be an exchange, or store credit, and not a return that will be offered. Many stores also slash prices after the holidays, so the credit you get could be far less than what was spent on the gift.
On the other hand, you could also use post-holiday sales to your advantage if you have a gift receipt. Before you rip off any tags, consider whether you want to return the item for the reduced price and pocket the cash, or pile up the store credit.
Returns Can Come At A Cost
Restocking fees have become a sore point for shoppers. It typically applies to electronics that have been removed from the packaging, which can cost you around 15 percent of the original purchase price. So for a $200 digital camera, the restocking fee might be $30.
But it can be worse.
At Overstock.com, customers can be charged as much as 60 percent of the purchase price for returned items, depending on their condition. So unless the delight you express on Christmas morning over that gift is sincere, don’t open the package.
Restocking fees have so rankled consumers that U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer asked federal regulators to force retailers earlier this month to display restocking fee policies more prominently. The Federal Trade Commission refused to get involved.
There are other ways to get dinged with returns: At Amazon.com, shoes returned after the 30-day deadline incur a 20 percent late fee that’s deducted from the refund. And with online purchases, you might have to pay for the shipping costs, depending on the store.
On the bright side, electronics retail giant Best Buy announced last weekend that it had permanently banished restocking fees. Deadlines for exchanging or returning items, however, remain in place.