Playing the Returns Game

Some gifts, even if bought at a store, can be mailed back using prepaid labels.

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When my new Dell laptop arrived this fall, I couldn't wait to turn it on and start using it. But first I had to spend an hour on the phone with my Internet service provider because the new computer wasn't compatible with my wireless modem. Then I had to devote two Saturdays in a row on the phone with Dell customer service trying to figure out why the computer shut off and started beeping if I left it on longer than an hour when plugged in.

Eventually, I gave up and returned the computer. That required several more phone calls and standing in a long post office line to ship it back. Now, after speaking with retail experts, I realize that I made several mistakes, including waiting too long to ask for a supervisor and not being clear enough in my requests, that made the process even more painful than it had to be. Luckily, there are strategies that can prevent shoppers—one third of whom will be returning gifts they receive over the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation—from wasting as much time as I did.

First, consider using prepaid return labels to avoid trips to the post office, even if the item was purchased at a shop. I didn't even realize this was possible until I spoke with Ken Johnson, a vice president at Newgistics, which handles returns for dozens of retailers, including J. Crew and Neiman Marcus. He says that not only are online and catalog-based stores providing prepaid return labels, but some stores give those labels to customers shopping in person. You can arrange to have your mail carrier pick up the package free of charge through the U.S. Postal Service website. "[Stores] are really going out of their way to make it easy to do business with them," he says.

Of course, you have to watch those shipping fees. Companies often charge you for the value of the prepaid label. I recently paid for shipping three times—when I first ordered, on the return, and on the replacement—when I had to return too-small shearling moccasin slippers to Lands' End. (I could have returned them at my local Sears, but saving the half-hour drive and hassle seemed worth the $6.50 return shipping fee at the time.) In many cases, you can find free-shipping coupon codes by typing the retailer name and the phrase "free shipping" into a Web search.

Lighter load. Saving receipts also pays off. Not only do they make returns easy and quick, but they can also generate partial refunds once the post-holiday sales begin. Many department stores will refund the difference between the sale price of an item and the original price, often with only a receipt in hand, so you can leave those bulky boxes at home.

If you open a gift Christmas Day that appears more suited to the giver's tastes than your own, consider holding on to it for at least a week or two. Return counters in the days right after Christmas can be even crazier than a holiday dinner table conversation that spans three generations. If you need to call customer service, try to wait for a weekday afternoon. Representatives tend to be busiest during lunch hours and the 6 p.m. hour, as well as Monday mornings.

If you're left dissatisfied by a customer service interaction, as I was with Dell, ask to speak to the manager. I didn't do this because I was afraid of insulting the customer service rep I was dealing with. But Andrea Ayers, business unit president of Convergys, a major customer service provider, says not to fret. "If you're not satisfied, and you've been clear with the agent, we would encourage you to ask to speak to a supervisor. That's what they're there for."

As for my laptop saga, I ended up satisfied with my refund. But I'm left feeling as if I deserve some sort of monetary compensation for my wasted time.