5 Tips for Returning Holiday Gifts

Here's the scoop on returning unwanted presents in stores and online.

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Customers will be piling into the malls and waiting in meandering lines again this holiday season, but this time it will be to return unwanted gifts. The number of returns made this year is projected to be on par with last year's, making up about 10 percent of total holiday sales, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. But shoppers are in luck, as most retailers' return, refund, and exchange policies tend to be more lenient right after Christmas, says Michelle Madhok, online shopping expert and founder of SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com. However, before you run to the store or post office to return your gifts, remember that monogrammed or personalized items are never returnable and neither are some items bought during a store's final sale, says Madhok.

Here are some hassle-free tips on how to go about returning your unloved holiday gifts:

1. Review stores' return policies and time frames.

Before you even consider returning a gift, contact the store or go to its website to find out its return policy. Some stores have specific return policies that are more flexible during the holiday season. If the item was bought on a store's website, most retailers allow their merchandise to be returned to the physical store, says Madhok. Also, she advises customers to return their items within 15 days after they were purchased as most stores have time frames for returning merchandise in order to receive a refund. Some of these time frames to return items are extended during the holiday season if purchases are made between certain dates in November and December, Madhok says.

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2. Bring gift receipts.

One of the most important items to bring along with your returns is your gift receipt, says Kathy Grannis, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation. In a recent NRF survey, about 58 percent of people said they include gift receipts with their presents most of the time. Most stores will give store credit with gift receipts, but some can also make refunds to the original credit card or provide a refund in cash. Some items may not be refunded for their original price if they have been discounted since the purchase. However, more retailers offer full refunds during the holiday season than at other times of the year, says Grannis.

3. Keep tags and original packaging.

Some retailers won't accept items if they are already opened or if not all of the components are included. If you do open the item and want to return it, be sure you keep all of the tags and original packaging. If you plan on returning an item, do not wear or use it as many retailers will not accept merchandise that has already been used.

4. Look up restocking fees.

Some stores charge a fee that can vary from 5 to 30 percent to restock returned merchandise, particularly electronics. Madhok says these fees often cover the labor involved with restocking the items. You may have to decide whether or not it is worth returning expensive purchases if you get only a portion of the money back, she says. For example, Best Buy charges 25 percent for special-order products, including appliances; 15 percent for opened notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, and GPS navigation and in-car video systems; and 10 percent for Apple iPhones. At Office Depot, a 15 percent restocking fee is applied to technology products that are missing any components. Target assesses a 15 percent restocking fee for camcorders, digital cameras, portable DVD players, and portable electronics. Sears charges a 15 percent restocking fee for some open electronics, mattresses, built-in appliances, and special orders. At Toys "R" Us, a 15 percent restocking fee is charged for online purchases of computers, monitors, notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, GPS units, and keyboards.

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5. Learn about online stores' shipping policies.

If you are returning something online, find out the store's shipping policies and costs. Some websites provide free shipping on returns, such as shoe seller Zappos.com, while others charge customers to ship their returned items. Other online retailers provide a shipping label and deduct the shipping fee from the refund. Online apparel retailer Bluefly.com offers free shipping on returns if the customer agrees to get a refund in store credit. Remember to keep your tracking number if you ship an item in order to find out when the retailer receives the item, Madhok says. Madhok has compiled a list on SheFinds.com of many large online retailers' return policies.