The Ins and Outs of Returns

posted in: Shopping Tips

Whether you bought something for yourself or received it as a gift, it’s disappointing to discover that the item doesn’t work for you. Disappointment aside, returning is a hassle. Depending on when you do it, you may encounter long lines, category restrictions, and limitations if you don’t have a receipt. Follow these tips for the most pleasant experience possible!  

Rules of Returns

1. Unwrap with Caution

In the excitement of opening a new item, tags can be torn off, packaging can be ripped, and gift receipts can be misplaced, all of which can make for a difficult return process. Rule of thumb, whenever opening a new item – whether you bought it yourself or if it’s a gift, open it carefully and hang on to any receipts.

2. Returning In-store Purchases

It’s safe to assume that if you’re returning in-store within 30 days of the purchase date and you have a receipt, you will receive the full purchase price back (except at Best Buy and Apple – see below for details!). 

But, if you do not have a receipt and/or are beyond that 30-day window, familiarize yourself with the return policy of the store so you know what to expect when you get there. It’s possible that you will get store credit for the current price, which could be a clearance price. 

Be nice! Not only is it the right thing to do, but some sales reps have a bit of leeway in what they can offer you. Being nice will get you a better outcome than being nasty. 

3. Returning Online Purchases

If a retailer has both an online and brick & mortar presence, the rules of returning can different between online and in-store. If you are returning something that was purchased online, you may have restrictions for returning in-store, and/or you will be given a gift card or credit for that retailer instead of a check or a credit to your charge card. The return policies of different sites vary widely – details below – so before initiating a return, read the policy so you know what to expect. 

Many stores, like Sephora, Zappos, and Nordstrom, have generous policies with free return shipping, but there are many online stores, like Uniqlo and Forever 21, that have strict rules and restrictions for returning, especially in-store. Because online returns have become so common, we are seeing more retailers adjust their return policies, i.e. charging fees, encouraging in-store returns over online, etc.   Examples of this are Gap, Old Navy, and JCrew, which are shortening their regular return windows to 30 days (this may be extended during the holidays, however. Amazon is now charging a $1 return fee if someone who lives near a Whole Foods or Kohl’s (and therefore could drop their return there) opts to return their items through the mail.

Retailers, like DSW, Anthropologie, REI, and L.L. Bean are now charging fees for mailed returns.


4. Just Keep It?

You might find that when you try to return something online, you’ll receive a credit without sending the item back. Some retailers, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Wayfair included, sometimes opt to take the loss rather than deal with the hassle of a return shipment.


5. Re-Selling

If you miss the return window or don’t want to pay a return shopping fee, you can also re-sell unwanted items. With large online marketplaces, like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Amazon Marketplace, you can sell almost anything, but there are also more category-specific marketplaces, like for camera & videography equipment, for tech, and ThredUp and for clothing. Before you post your items for sale, do a little digging to see what site might be best, and where you can get the best price.

6. Re-Gifting 

If you can’t get a good deal on your return, consider re-gifting. Remember, one person’s eyesore is another person’s Picasso. Store unwanted gifts in a safe place and revisit your gift stash for the next special occasion.

7. Host a Swap!

If you have more unwanted items than you know what to do with, host a swap! Good timing for this is right before the holidays, where you might find some good items for gifting, or right after the holidays to offload any gifts you can’t use.  


8. Donate

National Charities, like Big Brother, Big Sister, Lupus Foundation, or United War Veteran’s branch may accept unused and gently-used items as well. Sometimes, they’ll even pick up (try You can also check with your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter for drop-off options. You’ll be helping those in need and it’s a write-off for your taxes.  


9. Timing

A crucial rule of returning is timing. You can never return something too soon, but you can absolutely miss your window. Here’s a rundown of return windows and rules of returns from major retail players (see below for holiday returns).

15 days or less: You think it would be safe to say you have at least 30 days to return something. In most cases that’s true, but some electronics retailers, like Best Buy and Apple, are pretty strict, only allowing 15 days and 14 days, respectively. If you return with that winder, both will accept returns without a receipt and pay for return shipping. 

You may also find that retailers allow at least 30 days to return most things, but are more restrictive when it comes to electronics. Staples, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, and Costco are good examples of this. That said, it’s best to try and return electronics within 15 days to be safe.

30 days: Neiman Marcus allows returns within 30 days, no receipt required. You can ship the items back for free, but only within 15 days. Zara allows returns within 30 days and free return shipping, but if you return in-store without a receipt you are only permitted to exchange the item for another. 

H&M, Marshall’s, Home Goods, and TJ Maxx allow 30 days (Marshall’s and TJ Maxx allow 40 for online purchases) but don’t offer free return shipping and if you don’t have a receipt, you can only get store credit. and both allow 30 days for returns, but they will only pay for return shipping under certain circumstances, like if an item doesn’t work or is otherwise damaged. 


10. Holiday Returns

When returning a gift you received during the holidays, the return window will often be extended. The rules differ from retailer to retailer, but typically, you have between 1-4 weeks into January to return something that was purchased during the holiday shopping season.

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Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist and TV commentator who has specialized in smart shopping, personal finance, and retail for more than a decade. She has appeared on TV over 1,000 times; including Today Show, GMA3, NBC Nightly News, Inside Edition, and network affiliates nationwide. She has been named a Top Voice in Retail by LinkedIn, and her expert commentary has appeared in Forbes,, Kiplinger, Yahoo Finance, and numerous others.