They are the dark side of holiday giving: returns, exchanges, refunds. The gift you so lovingly selected -- maybe even waited in line at midnight on Thanksgiving for, risking trampling and fisticuffs -- turns out to be not quite your loved one's style. Or maybe it was you who got a well-meaning but hideous, or ill-fitting, or simply duplicate gift.
What should you do to ease the journey from disappointment to happiness?
- If you're the one doing the gifting, check out the return policy before you buy, especially on popular items like video games, tablet computers, e-readers and music players. These items often have shorter return windows, which vary quite a bit from store to store. (See below for a gift return policy roundup.)
- Also, do everyone a favor and include gift receipts. These tell the recipient that what's more important to you is that they get something they truly want -- and spares them the awkwardness of having to ask for one later, or worse, getting stuck with a gift they can't use.
If you're the one with gifts to return, before you head off to the mall, be sure to check out each retailer's refund policy to avoid nasty surprises at the register. They vary widely, not only from store to store, but also sometimes from item to item within the same shop.
Here's a quick rundown of policies at some of the nation's most popular stores.
Amazon.com: 30 days for most items
* The good: The policy is simple, and Amazon processes returns and exchanges quickly.
* The bad: All returns must be mailed in, so you'll likely incur shipping charges. (If the item is damaged or defective, however, return shipping is generally free.) Be sure to track your package, so you have proof of shipment if the item is lost.
* Receipt required?: Yes, but the purchaser can easily print a new one online. If you don't want to ask but can provide Amazon with his name and address, the system can still process your return.
Apple: 30 days for iPhones, 14 days for most other products. Items purchased at Apple.com between October 29 and December 25 can be returned through January 9, 2012.
* The good: Not much. Apple has one of the shortest return policies of the stores we surveyed.
* The bad: Just 14 days is pretty restrictive. Buy that iPad, Macbook, or iPod at Amazon or Best Buy instead for better terms.
* Receipt required?: Yes, but it can be looked up using the gifter's email address.
Best Buy: Gift purchases made between Nov. 13, 2011, and Dec. 24, 2011, can be returned through Jan. 24, 2012.
* The good: The extended holiday return policy is an improvement to Best Buy's otherwise complicated refund rules. Online purchases can be returned to a store or by mail.
* The bad: You'll have to provide an ID -- Big Brother, er, Best Buy keeps track of your exchanges and returns.
* Receipt required?: Yes.
Costco: 90 days for the following items: televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touch screen tablets, MP3 players, and cell phones. Unlimited returns on other items.
* The good: The best return policy on electronics of the major big-box stores.
* The bad: Nothing, really. Costco's return policy is excellent.
* Receipt required? No.
Macy's: Exchange or return most merchandise for a full refund anytime.
* The good: Macy's offers generous terms comparable to higher-end competitors like Nordstrom.
* The bad: Gift purchases can be returned for store credit only.
* Receipt required?: No, but if the purchase can't be verified, you will get store credit for the lowest selling price.
Target: 90 days for most items; 45 days for computers, tablets, e-readers, cameras, and camcorders.
* The good: As long as you have a receipt, Target's return process is quick and painless. If you've misplaced the receipt but paid by credit or debit card, an associate can easily access your purchase info.
* The bad: Gift returns get store credit, and exchanges aren't as easy as they could be. You first have to return the item, then locate it in the store and rebuy -- a hassle during busy times.
* Receipt required?: Yes, though at its discretion, Target will sometimes accept returns without a receipt. The company tracks these and is notorious for "banning" shoppers who regularly return items without a receipt.
Toys"R"Us: 90 days for most toys; 45 days for video game systems, accessories, and games, as well as some other electronics.
* The good: 45 days on video game-related items is one of the best policies we've seen.
* The bad: Gifts returned online result in a refund to the purchaser, not the recipient.
* Receipt required?: Yes.
Walmart: 90 days for most items; 15 days for video game systems, GPS units, digital music players, computers, cameras, tablets, e-readers, and portable video players. For holiday gifts, the return clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26.
* The good: Walmart has a much clearer policy on no-receipt returns than Target -- no more than three in a 45-day period, and you'll even get cash for items under $25 (gift card for more expensive items).
* The bad: 15 days on electronics isn't the best policy out there.
* Receipt required? No.
If all else fails, and you simply can't return or exchange that unwanted gift, you may still be in luck. Craigslist and eBay are often great places to sell unneeded items -- you may not get back as much as they're worth, but hey, some cash is better than none!
Motley Fool contributing writer Robyn Gearey owns shares of Apple and Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walmart, Costco, Apple, and Best Buy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walmart, Apple, Amazon.com, and Costco; creating a bull call spread position in Apple; writing covered calls in Best Buy; and creating a diagonal call position in Walmart.