Avoiding Unhappy Returns

by Chris Bjorklund


Keeping receipts in a basket on your desk is a good way to keep track of purchases during the holiday season. Photo: Chris Bjorklund (2015)

When I managed a consumer complaint line for KGO Radio and TV, we always had calls after Christmas about stores’ unreasonable return policies. Consumers were frustrated that they couldn’t get their money back, receive a store credit or exchange a gift. In some cases, receipts had been misplaced or thrown away, and some were simply unavailable because the item was a gift. In other cases, stores had failed to clearly post their refund policies as required by state law. People were unhappy about restocking fees, too.

To help you avoid problems after this holiday shopping season, I have some practical advice:

Know your rights. State law still allows retail stores to set their own refund policies. According to the California Attorney General, retailers who won’t allow refunds, credits or exchanges when you have receipts within seven days of purchase must have a conspicuous notice posted about such a policy. Simply printing the refund policy on a receipt isn’t sufficient.|

Develop a system for saving your receipts. Get paper or email receipts for all your purchases and keep them in one place. Use your credit card when possible so you have that record as a backup. I put all my receipts in my wallet while I’m shopping and then transfer them to a basket on my desk.

Ask about refund policies and check fine print when shopping online. According to Joe Ridout of Consumer Action, most retailers that have a large online presence as well as brick and mortar stores will accept an online return at a store, but some won’t, so it’s important to clarify the company’s return policy before making an online purchase. “Some retailers will actually insist that you ship your purchase back to wherever it came from, which is surprising to many people,” he adds.

See what return rights you have with your credit card. If a store refuses a refund, credit or exchange, ask your credit card company if they’ll give you your money back. Some cards (Discover, American Express) allow up to 90 days for refunds and $300 for an item. Each company has exclusions (tickets, live animals, food, etc.), so check the fine print or call customer service for more information about consumer protections.

Keep packaging intact. Consumer Reports advises against opening boxes if you’re going to return the products, especially electronics, computer software and DVDs. Restocking fees (which can be as high as 15 percent) may be charged if tags and packaging are missing.

Return policies are more generous right after the holidays. If you’ve lost a receipt for an item, even one that was purchased earlier in the year, the easiest time to make a return is during the weeks after Christmas. Many stores are more lenient on returns in late December and January than they are in April or May.

I have one final bit of caution from Consumer Action’s Joe Ridout: If you make “excessive” returns, you may get placed on a retail blacklist. “Basically, if a retailer asks to scan your driver’s license before they process a return, they probably participate in a retail blacklist program,” he explains. “Even if you’re legitimately returning an item under the store’s return provisions, you can run afoul of what they consider ‘excessive returns’—and not just at that store, but at other stores as well. You might even have a return disallowed because the retailer participates in a blacklisting system.”

Happy holidays, happy shopping and many happy returns!

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