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Second mall challenge: Taking back the 'not-quite-rights' MANY HAPPY RETURNS


Sales clerks have stories -- oh, do they have stories!

For instance, there's the man who bought a battery-powered nose trimmer. Ten minutes later, he decided to return the nose trimmer. Apparently, he had walked around the mall, tried it out on himself and decided it wouldn't do, says Becky Stallings a manager at the Brookstone store in Owings Mills Town Center.

The store isn't recommending that others try this -- but did take it back.

Tomorrow, hordes of people will return all sorts of Christmas gifts that didn't quite hit the mark. (It is hoped that used nose trimmers will not be among them.)

But the red nightie with the sequined straps? That's a definite return. And the 32-waist khakis from your mom that would have fit just fine 10 years ago?

Well, you and your size 36 love handles will amble on down to the department store for some meaningful exchange with a sales clerk.

Know what you're getting into, though. It's going to be crowded out there. Each store has its own rules about returns and exchanges. So it helps to know ahead of time what to expect so you can get in, do your business and zoom out of the day-after frenzy.

Rule of thumb: The person with the most receipts wins.

The fact is, stores are rather generous when it comes to return policies, particularly for Christmas gifts. They are not bound by law to take returns or make exchanges unless the merchandise is defective.

Consider the story of one Charles County woman: According to the Maryland attorney general's office, the woman bought a bridesmaid's dress. But after the wedding was canceled, she took the dress back for a refund. The tags were still on the dress, no alterations had been made and she hadn't worn it.

The store refused to take it back . . . and it didn't have to.

It pays to know what stores are legally bound to do year-round and especially now, says Rebecca Bowman, an assistant attorney general who heads the Complaint Unit in the Consumer Protection Division.

"There are two categories that need to be kept straight," she explains.

"One category is if goods are defective. Say, that blender you got doesn't work. You always have the right to take that back. The merchant must repair, replace or refund the item."

"The second category is if there is nothing wrong with the item. It doesn't fit, you can't use it or just don't like it. In Maryland, this falls under the Consumer Protection Regulation. It means merchants can have whatever refund policy they want, including no refund policy," she says.

"However, they must notify the customer. That can be by putting a tag on the item, posting a notice in a prominent location or on the sales receipts. Of course, that last one means you would have already bought the item." As for the inevitable crowds, Joanne Kelsey, manager of Crabtree & Evelyn in the Owings Mills Town Center, sums it up in a word: "Unbelievable.

"It's basically just like the days before Christmas," she says.

Count on stores to be fully staffed the day after Christmas. It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and particularly so when it falls on the weekend like this year.

"Yes! We will all be here," says Elaine Van Arken, manager of Sears in Security Square Mall.

But even with a full sales contingent, expect to wait.

"With exchanges, you have to spend a lot more time with people," Ms. Van Arken says.

The following are some general guidelines that can at least cut down on return time and hassle. They were gleaned from conversations with several local retailers. (For a sampling of the return/exchange policies at some of the Baltimore area's largest stores, see the accompanying article.)

* If you can get a receipt, take it. Receipts mean faster refunds and exchanges. If you have no receipt, leave the store's tag on the merchandise and don't use it.

* The lines will be shorter a week or two after Christmas. On the other hand, many stores will offer special, marked-down bargains tomorrow. The judgment call is yours.

* Stores with branches located in cities across the country usually will take back their merchandise purchased in another locale.

* If there is a dispute, ask to speak to the store manager.

* Make sure the merchandise came from the store you are attempting to return it to. There's the old put-the-discount-store-item-in-the- Neiman's-box trick.

And, says Ms. Kelsey, "Sometimes, people are too embarrassed to ask where gifts came from. We spend more time trying to convince people that the gifts they thought came from here really didn't."

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