5 Tips for Hassle-Free Gift Returns

One in three shoppers will return gifts in the post-holiday rush, but you can still make the process easy.

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As hard as we try to pick out the best gifts for family and friends, we’re going to fail some of the time. The National Retail Federation estimates that about one-third of consumers will end up returning gifts this year. That’s not necessary a bad thing, since returning gifts gives recipients a chance to pick out an even better present for themselves, although some people take offense when their gifts are returned. (If you fall into that category, then you might want to consider giving gift cards to save yourself the heartache.)

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If you, or some of your gift recipients, might be headed to the return counter in the coming days, then these five tips will help make the process as easy as possible:

Be a good giver. The number one rule of good gifting is to provide a gift receipt, which allows recipients to exchange their presents without having an awkward conversation with you about their reasons. The National Retail Federation reports that six in ten shoppers provide this useful piece of paper, a slight increase over last year. The gift receipt, of course, comes without the price tag visible, which keeps that exact dollar amount of your generosity under wraps.

For gifts purchased online, consider holding onto the original boxes, as well, for shipping. Retailers usually allow you to use any box, but it’s not always easy to find the right size.

Prepare in advance. If you are the one planning to make a return, then don’t go to the store until you’ve checked on its return policy, which is most likely available on its website. Some stores require a smorgasbord of proof of purchase, including tags, receipt, and original packaging. Others adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, and take back any gift that appears to have originated from its shelves. No one wants to wait in line only to be told their return isn’t acceptable, so be sure to do your research in advance to avoid that unpleasant surprise.

As you’re opening gifts, it helps to stay organized, so you keep the original packaging, tags, and receipt together. Even if you’re eager to wear that new sweater from your grandmother on Christmas, consider waiting a day or two to see if you really like that particular shade of coral. Once you wear it, you can’t return it, especially if you spill any of your Christmas dinner on it.

Visit stores during their “quiet hours.” While retailers are busy almost all of the time right before and after big holidays, it is possible to find a few down periods, such as after 8pm but before 9pm closing times. Or, wait a couple weeks until the holiday rush is over. Just be sure to check the date on your receipt, since many stores require you to make returns within 30 days, and your gift giver might have done her shopping early.

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

Shop at retailers with liberal return policies. Retailer return policies vary widely. A recent survey published on the US News' My Money blog found that Macy’s, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, and Zappos offered some of the most flexible return policies, while Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot had stricter ones. At Best Buy, shoppers have just 14 days to return electronics such as computers and digital cameras. In contrast, Zappos, an online store, offers free return shipping for 365 days, which makes it easy for you (or your gift recipients) to make exchanges.

Use prepaid labels for online returns. For online shoppers, the cost of returns isn’t the only factor. Mailing back packages can also take time, since postal offices tend to be crowded this time of year. That’s where preprinted return labels come in. Many retailers, including Zappos, L.L. Bean, and J. Crew, offer prepaid return labels to customers who shop online, so you don’t need to wait in line at the post office. Instead, you can just attach the prepaid label to the outside of your box and put it in the mail. (If it’s a large or heavy package, you might need to let the postal service know in advance if it’s sitting outside your door so he is prepared.)

While some of these techniques require a little extra advance effort, they’ll help you get home with your new and improved gift faster.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.

Corrected 12/20/10: Best Buy recently eliminated its restocking fees, except for special orders.