The Baltimore Sun

You're not sure what to buy your little sister with the eccentric tastes for Christmas, but finally settle on boots you think are funky but she might consider ugly.

Odds are, with her picky taste, she might not like them and will end up making a trip back to the store to return or exchange the gift.

She won't be the only one crowding the malls after Christmas or Hanukkah looking to replace a gift that wasn't quite right.

Returns are already up for the year as a tight economy is causing consumers like you and your sister to be choosier about purchases. And retail industry figures predict returns are going to grow even more this year as consumers look for ways to trim costs, find cash and perhaps use holiday gifts to meet more immediate needs.

Some of it can be attributed to buyer's remorse. You might get home and feel guilty about purchasing another little black dress you don't really need when you could be jobless tomorrow. So back to the store it goes.

Some of you, looking for every extra little bit of money you can in this tight economy, might prefer to exchange your holiday gifts for cash that you can spend on food and other necessities. "We're hearing a lot of consumers being choosy about the items that they're keeping," said Joe LaRocca, the National Retail Federation's vice president of loss prevention. "Historically, they might have kept items they weren't sure about, and today they're bringing the items back."

Consumers are expected to return $219 billion in merchandise this year, up $41 billion, or 23 percent, from last year, according to a recent survey by the retail trade group.

Such predictions on returns come as merchants are fighting for your dollars more than ever during a holiday season shaping up to be the most dismal in years. Many retailers are offering more flexible return policies as one way to gain your loyalty.

"It started last year to entice more shoppers and make them feel more comfortable with a particular retailer," said Amanda Pires, director of marketing for PayPal. "The economy gave it that extra push. We need to capture every consumer we can this year."

About 11 percent of retailers have made their return policies more flexible than last year, according to the NRF. About 52 percent said their policy will be more flexible during the holiday season as compared with the rest of the year, an increase from 35 percent last year.

"Returns are part of building the consumer relationship," LaRocca said.

Best Buy is allowing most purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 to be returned through Jan. 24. Sears' holiday return policy allows 120 days to return a purchase made from Nov. 16 to Dec. 23.

Items sold by and shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 may be returned until Jan. 31 for a full refund. The normal policy is 30 days from the date of delivery.

Your job as a consumer is to make sure you hit the stores that have the most flexible return policies for the recipients of your gifts.

Maryland law doesn't require stores to accept returns or exchanges, said Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, deputy chief in the consumer protection division of the Maryland attorney general's office.

But if they do, a retailer must display its policy on a sign or on your receipt. A store must provide a return or exchange for a defective product, regardless of its return policy, Sakamoto-Wengel said.

It might sound simple, but make sure you know the return policy. Policies differ from store to store. Some stores might give only store credit or an exchange, and not return it for cash. If the person you give the gift to doesn't like what the store offers, they'll have few options.

Also, make sure you have your receipts or a gift slip. It's the one thing you can do to make returning a gift as easy as possible. With a receipt, there's automatic proof the item was bought at a particular store - and at what price.

If you don't have a receipt and a store accepts the return, you'll get credit only for the last price for which the item was sold. So if you paid $100 and the item was discounted 50 percent since you bought it, you'll get credit only for that last price.

Some stores can track purchases without a receipt, but they're few and far between. Macy's puts a bar code sticker on every item purchased so it can track merchandise without a receipt. Target can also track purchases by matching the numbers from credit, debit or gift cards used to buy merchandise. It also can track purchases made by check.

You also should see if a store has a restocking fee, particularly for electronics. A store may charge a restocking fee of 5 percent to 10 percent because they won't be able to resell the product as new.

You should also keep all packaging and tags. Many retailers require the item to be in the original packaging.

As a consumer, you want to be careful about purchasing gifts from stores that might not be around after the new year. Otherwise, you could give a gift to someone who will not have a place to return it.

"You can only return to a store that is still there," said Charles Shafer, president of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. "The most important thing is to know the merchant. Know the merchant is reliable and stable, and will be there in a week's time."

If you do unknowingly end up buying something from a retailer that goes under, check with your credit card company to see if it will cover the purchase.

You also need to consider return policies when shopping Internet sites.

Check to see if a retailer will pay for the shipping costs for a return. You don't want to saddle the person you're giving the gift to with the extra cost of shipping back what they don't like. Some Internet retailers will allow for exchanges but not returns. Also see if the retailer provides shipping labels.

Make sure you know the correct address to return an item. Some retailers might use a different location, or a third party, to handle returns.

The best option might be an Internet retailer that allows you to return the merchandise to a bricks-and-mortar store. That way you don't have to deal with the hassle of mailing something.

tips for returning

* Know the return policy before you buy. Maryland law requires stores to post the policy.

* Save and file all receipts. Without a receipt or gift slip, a merchant might provide credit only for the lowest price the item was sold for during the season.

* Keep all packaging, parts and tags. Some retailers won't take back items not in the original package.

* When returning online, check to see if the merchant charges shipping for returns. Some will for returns but not exchanges.

* Check the address for returns because it might be different from where the package was originally sent.

* Be careful of companies in danger of going out of business. You want there to be a place for someone to return a gift.

* Ask about restocking fees.

Source: National Retail Federation

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