Consumer Reports Reveals 5 Steps to Happy Returns

Dec 07, 2010, 06:51 ET from Consumer Reports

Almost 1 in 5 Americans expected to return at least one holiday gift

YONKERS, N.Y., Dec. 7, 2010 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Socks again? As consumers scramble to purchase gifts this holiday season, shoppers also need to keep in mind that nearly 20 percent of Americans plan to return at least one holiday gift, according to a Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll conducted last year.

And though most shopping policies are more lenient than they were before the recession, some companies have fought fraud and abuse with stricter policies. But there are ways to prepare for a hassle-free return process with the least amount of headache, according to the January issue of Consumer Reports on newsstands December 7 and online at

"Return policies are a moving target so you always have to be sure to read the current fine print," said Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor and resident shopping expert. "Start by purchasing gifts from retailers with flexible return policies, like web merchants that include free prepaid return shipping labels with purchase."

Return rules to live by

Retailers might have different return requirements for items that are bought in their stores, through their website, or by mail order. Gift recipients probably need the receipt, the box the gift came in, and the retailer's enclosed mailing label.  Call or visit the merchant's website for specifics, such as whether something that was purchased online can be returned to a walk-in store. Consumer Reports also recommends shoppers keep these tips in mind:

  1. Know the time frame. Big retailers usually allow 90 days for returns of most items but might have shorter periods for electronics, software, and CDs and DVDs. Retailers sometimes extend deadlines during the holiday shopping seasons. Electronics bought at Walmart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days, for example, but this year the clock doesn't start ticking until December 26 for purchases made between November 15 and December 25.
  2. Get a receipt. Many merchants used to offer at least store credit to shoppers without a receipt, but now some shoppers might be out of luck. If the purchase was made by credit card, debit card or check some stores will try to find an electronic receipt, but cash customers might be out of luck.
  3. Bring a driver's license. Some companies, like Best Buy, require a government-issued ID with a receipt to make a return. (That way they can track serial returners even if the transaction is in cash.)
  4. Be sure before you open the box. Merchants can't resell an item as new after the package has been opened, so they impose a restocking fee, usually 15 percent of the product's cost. The fees apply mostly to electronics, but Sears also charges for mattresses, built-in appliances, and special orders on hardware, sporting goods, and other merchandise. Even a missing instruction manual, cords and cables or warranty card can give retailers reason to deny the return. Items like computer software, video games, CDs and DVDs aren't generally returnable for another title after the seal has been broken. If an item comes with a rebate offer, make sure it works before removing the UPC code to redeem the rebate.
  5. Know where to go. If the item was purchased online and the merchant has a walk-in store, check the website to see whether the store accepts returns to avoid repacking, a post-office trip, and shipping fees.

Major retailers' policies vary

If flexible returns are a priority, it's best to know the details on what the major players require and offer when it comes to returning or exchanging an item. Here's the fine print of some heavy-hitters' return policies:


Time Period



Restocking Fees


30 days for unopened books, CDs DVDs, video games, and software; partial refund after 30 days on other items


Kindle can't be returned after one month trial

Best Buy

14 days for computers, monitors, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, and radar detectors; 30 days for other products

Original receipt and a photo ID are required

15% for opened notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, GPS, and in-car video systems; 25% for special orders and appliances


90 days

Receipt required (unless purchased  with a credit card, debit card, check, or gift card); items must be unused and packaged

Opened music, movies, video games, and software can't be returned unless defective

15% for many portable electronics


90 days for most items; 45 for computer components; 30 for camcorders and digital cameras; 15 for computers

Returns without receipts are accepted, but 3 or more such returns in 45 days will trigger a red flag, and the return will have to be approved by a manager

Music, movies, and software must be unopened


Open-ended for most products; 90 days for cash refunds for TVs, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, MP3 players, and cell phones

A receipt is not essential because a membership card is linked to every purchase

Home Depot

90 days; 30 days for air conditioners, gas-powered equipment, and holiday-décor items

Receipt, unused, original packaging; receipt might not be necessary for check, credit-, or debit-card payments

Live goods such as holiday trees, plants, and cut flowers are not returnable unless damaged

Special orders and order cancellations Subject to 15% fee


90 days; 30 days for home electronics, mattresses, air conditioners, gas-powered equipment, jewelry, and watches

Receipt or e-mail conformation and original packaging required

CDs, DVDs, computer software, and sports/toy collectibles must be unopened

15% on electronics returned used, without original box, or lacking original packaging and accessories; mattresses, built-in appliances, sporting goods, lawn and garden items, and automotive merchandise

Toys "R" Us

90 days for most items; 45 days for unopened/factory-sealed video systems, games, and accessories; computer software; VHS cassettes; DVDs; music; electronics; radio-control items; trading cards; collectibles; and consumer electronics

Receipt or online packing slip

Online purchases returned to store are refunded with a merchandise credit


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SOURCE Consumer Reports