Slow down. There are a few things you should consider before you rush down to the mall with a bag full of ugly sweaters. To get the skinny on return season, we spoke to Edgar Dworsky of ConsumerWorld.org. Dworsky, it turns out, is something of an expert on returning stuff, and he shared with us some of his tips for hassle-free returns.
Don't Go on Dec. 26
Retailers will have extra customer service staff on hand on the day after Christmas, but make no mistake about it -- you'll still be contending with long lines to make your returns.
"That's the day the lines are the longest," confirms Dworsky. "Why would you want to go on the day when the help at the customer service desk is frazzled?"
Why, indeed. Hard data backs up the idea that the malls are mobbed on Dec. 26: ShopperTrak, which carefully measures retail foot traffic and sales, tells us that the day after Christmas will be the fifth-busiest shopping day of the season.
A spokesperson for ShopperTrak notes that the day after Christmas won't be as crazy as it was last year, when it fell on a Monday and many people had the day off. This year it falls on a Wednesday, and many Americans will be back at work. But it'll still be a madhouse.
Sure, some of those people will be there for post-Christmas sales, and we can't blame you if you're there to take advantage of those discounts (or if, as Dworsky suggests, you're hoping to exchange that sweater for a size you think is in short supply). But otherwise, wait a few days.
Know What You're Getting Back
Were you hoping to return that unwanted gift and get back cash? Not so fast: Dworsky notes that if all you have is a gift receipt (or no receipt at all), you're pretty much stuck with store credit, usually in the form of a store gift card.
If the merchandise comes from a store you don't particularly like, you have a couple of options. If the gift came from a close family member (say, a spouse or a sibling), you may be able to persuade them to come shopping with you, get the credit on their credit card and buy you something you actually want.
If that's not possible, then you can always do your best to turn the store gift card into cash. We've highlighted a number of gift card exchange sites where you can sell your gift cards, including Plastic Jungle, CardHub, CouponTrade and Gift Card Granny. And you could also regift it, though the recipient might get a little suspicious when you give them an Aeropostale gift card worth $32.46.
Know the Return Window
The most important thing to know before you get in line is the exact return policy. Return windows vary by retailer, and many of them now have tiered policies whereby different classes of products must be returned sooner than others. Further complicating things is that most retailers implement special holiday return policies, some of which start the return clock at Christmas rather than at the date of purchase. And you'll obviously need to know whether a missing receipt or an open box is a dealbreaker.
"Read and understand the policy while you're waiting in line," Dworsky advises. "Are you asking for something foursquare in the rules ... or are you asking for an accommodation?"
In fact, you'll probably want to get the return policy figured out as soon as you get an unwanted gift, so you can know just how long you have to return it. And it also helps to know if there are any policies that impose a restocking fee for opened packages and missing tags.
To get you started, here are the holiday return policies for a few of the biggest retailers. Since each has various restrictions and terms to numerous to list here, you'll want to check out the full policy on each retailer's website.
• Walmart: Most items have a 90-day return policy, but a few product classes are either 15 or 30 days. Electronic items like cameras and tablets must be returned within 15 days, while outdoor appliances like generators and chainsaws have a 30-day return window. If you got something from the 15- or 30-day list, though, and it was purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24, then the clock doesn't start until Dec. 26. So if, for instance, you got an e-reader for Christmas that was purchased way back on Black Friday, you still have until Jan. 10 to bring it back.
• Target: Most unopened items have a 90-day return policy, and Target reserves the right to deny refunds for opened packages. Electronics items have a 30-day return policy, and the clock starts at Dec. 26 for purchases since Nov. 1. As with Walmart, items under the standard 90-day return policy are still dated from the time of purchase.
• Sears: The retailer has a tiered returns policy of 90, 60 or 30 days, though 60 is the standard. For items in the 30-day category that were purchased between Nov. 11 and Dec. 24, you have until Jan. 24; for items in the 60-day category, you have until the later of 60 days from the date of purchase or Jan. 24. And if you're returning certain classes of appliances or sporting equipment because of visible damage, you'll need to report that damage within 72 hours to qualify for an exchange.
• Amazon: Any items shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned through Jan. 31. There are a few conditions: All of the original packaging and accessories must be included, and media items like CDs and DVDs must be unopened. In general you'll need to pay for return shipping, though certain categories (including shoes and jewelry) have free return shipping.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.