6 Do's and Don'ts of Gift Returns

How to maximize your chances of a hassle-free gift return – even without a receipt.

Woman shops at a local clothing boutique. Sales clerk waits behind the check out counter.
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There probably isn't a person in the world who enjoys returning a gift, but if one did, it would be Laura Bellinger.

Over the years, Bellinger, who works in public relations and lives in Atlanta, has developed a reputation among friends and family for being fearless with what she returns, whether it's a holiday gift she knows she'll never use or a purchase she regrets. While many consumers figure it's a waste of time or effort to return an item that didn't work out, Bellinger is rarely discouraged. Once, after a trip to France to see her mother, she returned home with $3,000 worth of clothes from Paris, paid for with her credit card, and a case of shopper's remorse. She called the store, explained her regret and was told she could send the clothes back for a refund. On other occasions, she has returned food to the grocery store in exchange for store credit and has even taken back plants.

"I hate wasting money," Bellinger says. "If you're an impulse shopper and also allergic to debt, you have to become a good returner."

[See: 10 Ways Companies Make Consumers Happy.]

Given the long lines involved, that isn't always easy during this time of the year. According to the National Retail Federation, approximately $50 billion worth of gifts are returned or exchanged annually at stores throughout the country. So if you have gifts to return and you want the process to go as smoothly as possible – especially if you don't have a receipt – here are some do's and don'ts to keep in mind.

Do: If at all feasible, bring a receipt. If you have that receipt, you'll probably have a pretty painless and short experience at the gift return counter. If you don't have a receipt – or are embarrassed to ask the gifter for one – but you know what store the gift came from, the staff might be able to find the receipt anyway.

Target, for instance, has a refund look-up system. According to its website, "in most instances," it can verify purchases made in stores and online within the last 90 days if the item was purchased with a credit card, debit card, gift card or check.

If you want to return a gift you bought and can't find the receipt, search your email before going to the store empty-handed. At check-out, some store clerks ask if you want a digital receipt instead, and you may have opted out of a paper version.

Don't: Be a jerk. Returning a gift can be subjective, and keep in mind that's a human being behind the counter who may be very weary of dealing of tense shoppers, hour after hour. You may be weary, too, if you've been standing in line awhile. But if you're smart, you won't be grouchy or unkind when explaining that you'd like a refund despite not having a receipt or the item's packaging. If you don't have a receipt and the store could make a case for not accepting the item, you really don't want to make the case for them.

Do: Go to the store when fewer customers will be there. This can be tricky in the aftermath of the holidays, since plenty of people have gift returns on their agenda. How many? The digital coupon site retailmenot.com conducted three surveys throughout October, November and December of more than 1,000 U.S. adults each, and reported that 42 percent of respondents said they typically return at least some gifts they receive over the holidays.

Still, if you want to do what you can to minimize the crowds, Bellinger says the best times to go are late in the evening and right when the store opens. You may have little luck with that strategy in the days right after Christmas, however. "The day after Christmas, every department store is a zoo, even a sedate one like Saks," says Nancy Brenner, who runs the consumer blog garmentdistrictdiva.tumblr.com, which specializes in fashion.

Don't: Wait too long to take back your return. Waiting a month or two to return a gift, when you know crowds will be minimal, is a crafty idea. But it's also a risk, according to Brenner.

It shouldn't be if you're still within the store's extended return policy, but if you wait longer, your receipt could lose value. "Receipts, like milk, have expiration dates, and the longer you wait, the less you will receive in value," Brenner says. "If the price gets marked down further, you may only get the markdown, not the purchase price."