How to Return Gifts This Year

Some stores on clamping down on their return policies.

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It might seem too early to think about returns when we're still in the midst of our Christmas shopping, but it's not. Some stores will be much more helpful than others when it's time to return that sweater that doesn't fit or the stereo system that's not compatible with the new iPod.

Consumer World has reviewed retailers' return policies so we don't have to, and they've uncovered some surprises.

Overall, it will be more difficult to make returns than it was last year. The National Retail Federation reports that 17 percent of stores are enforcing stricter policies this year, compared to 11 percent of stores that will make it easier for customers. I've already experienced the pain of a brutal return policy. I bought my husband a new stereo system, but he saw it when it came in the mail. Since this ruined the surprise, I had to return the stereo and get him a new present. In addition to paying for shipping, I also had to pay a 10 percent restocking fee, even though I hadn't even opened the box. (You might wonder whether being surprised on Christmas is worth paying for all these extra fees. Why not just keep the stereo? My husband could still unwrap the gift and start using it on Christmas. Well, from my husband's perspective, no surprise means no excitement. I might as well be giving him a lump of coal.)

[See tips on "Playing the Returns Game."]

Here's what you need to know about retailers' return policies, based on Consumer World's research:

  • Circuit City will accept returns through January 31. Previously, it required returns to be made within a 14-day window.
    • Sears will limit the restocking fee it charges to electronics and a few other categories, and it will also extend its return period to 120 days instead of 90 (some exceptions apply).
      • Best Buy shortened its return period; all returns must be made by Jan. 24, and computers come with only a 14-day return period.
        • Macy's reduced its fee for restocking furniture to 10 percent (it was 25 percent).
          • JC Penny will only accept "special occasion dresses" that still have their tags attached. (So don't think you can don that dress to a Christmas party and then get your money back.)
            • Overstock.com sometimes charges up to a 30 percent restocking fee.
              • Target requires receipts for returns.
              • For more information and tips, check out Consumer World's holiday returns information page.