The Ins and Outs of Returns

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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 Gap, Old Navy, 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. 

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

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 Decluttr.com for tech, Poshmark.com for higher-end clothing, and Swap.com for general apparel. 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 pickupplease.org). 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. 

Amazon.com and Overstock.com 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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Smart Shopping Expert

Trae Bodge is an accomplished lifestyle journalist, TV presenter, spokesperson, and educator, specializing in beauty, tech, apps, toys, gift guides, and smart shopping. She has appeared as an expert on dozens of TV shows and radio networks, including Today, Rachael Ray Show, Inside Edition, CNN, Reuters, CNBC.com, Sirius Radio, and numerous FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. Trae has been featured as a beauty tastemaker in Elle, Redbook, InStyle, and Essence, and her work has appeared on Yahoo Finance, Marketwatch, USNews.com, Credit.com, CBSNews.com, Time.com.