7 Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Gift Returns

Follow this plan for retuning those ugly sweaters and unwanted socks.

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Sabah Karimi
After the holiday shopping buzz winds down, and you're done sorting through those holiday gifts, you might need a plan to return unwanted presents.

Retailers are making it easier than ever to exchange or return items after the holidays, and some modify their standard return policy to accommodate for the holiday rush. You might even find it easier to return items if you are a loyal customer or have earned "preferred" status at the store.

Use these seven tips for stress-free holiday gift returns:

1. Find that receipt. Even though some retailers can be more lenient with their return policy during the post-holiday rush, you will be able to speed through the returns process when you bring your receipt. Whether it's a purchase receipt or a gift receipt, do whatever you can to find the original or get a digital version of it for the return. Some stores may only offer store credit or a gift card if you try and return the item without a receipt. Others may be able to process the return if you paid with a credit card or if you shared your phone number when you paid with a check or cash.

2. Review the return policy closely. Make sure you return the item in the store's return window, and return it to the right location. Some retailers that have both an online outlet and a brick-and-mortar store may have a limited return policy. For example, you might only be able to return something that was purchased online to the online store, which means you may have to cover the cost of shipping it back. Review the receipt or invoice closely for the return policy so you don't waste time making an extra trip to the store or wasting money.

3. Avoid the post-Christmas sales. The few days right after Christmas are still prime shopping days, which means you'll deal with long lines and slow customer service. If you can wait until the first week of January – or later – to take care of holiday gift returns, you may find it easier to get the refunds or credits you want. Map out your schedule so you can completely avoid the post-Christmas shopping rush.

4. Double check your items. Some stores won't accept items that have been opened or appear to be used. Make sure you double check your items so that everything is still in returnable condition. This will prevent you from waiting in a long line at the customer service counter, only to find out that the store won't honor the return. If the item has been used or cannot be returned based on the store's policy, consider listing it for sale on eBay or Craigslist, or even trading or selling the item on Facebook Marketplace.

5. Bring a form of identification. Even if you're a frequent shopper or have a store credit card, the customer service representative may need to see a form of ID to process your return. Make sure to bring your driver's license or another form of ID to get through the returns process as quickly as possible.

6. Be prepared to pay a restocking fee. If you're returning electronics or other items that have been opened but are still unused, the store might charge you a restocking fee. This can be up to 15 percent of the purchase price, so make sure you are aware of this fee when you return items that cost a few hundred – or even a few thousand – dollars. Consider whether you may be better off selling the item online or posting a local ad for the new item. You might be able to recover the full cost of the item so you don't have to pay a restocking fee.

7. Have a back-up plan for damaged goods. If the item you are returning is slightly damaged and the store will not accept the return, be prepared to ask for a partial store credit, or to sell the item on your own. Even if the damage wasn't your fault, many stores will not accept the item if they cannot sell it easily. Have a back-up plan so you can get the refund you need.

Sabah Karimi is a columnist at the personal finance blog WiseBread.com, where you can find useful tips on how to get exactly what you want from customer service.