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When gifts disappoint

ST. LOUIS -- If Aunt Janet doesn't like the watch you bought her this Christmas, it's OK. Just be aware of the return policy on it. Retailers either tighten or loosen their return policies each year. And this year, like every year, their motivati...

ST. LOUIS -- If Aunt Janet doesn't like the watch you bought her this Christmas, it's OK. Just be aware of the return policy on it.

Retailers either tighten or loosen their return policies each year. And this year, like every year, their motivation for making adjustments is the same: to stem the tide of return fraud.

The retail industry is expected to lose an estimated $2.7 billion in return fraud this holiday season and an estimated $9.6 billion this year, according to a National Retail Federation survey.

The survey also said that 6.4 percent of holiday returns are expected to be fraudulent this year, down from 7.5 percent last year.

Also in the study, 69 percent of the 134 retailers interviewed said they have changed their company's return policy to combat fraud. While 16.9 percent of retailers said they will tighten their policies, 3.8 percent said they will relax theirs.

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Target Corp. usually allows customers to return items within 90 days of purchase, However, the company will accept returns on purchases made during the holiday season for up to 12 months. Target limits and periodically adjusts the monetary amount of the total purchases returned. This year it stands at items totaling less than $70, but that amount has ranged from $20 to $100 in the past few years.

"The reason we went through so much change in our return policy accommodations is that we continually seek feedback from our guests regarding their service expectations," said Sonja Pothen, a spokeswoman for Target.

Sears has extended its time period slightly for holiday returns, said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Corporate Holdings.

The store will accept items purchased between Nov. 14 to Dec. 13 for up to 120 days. But home electronics and mattresses will have to be returned within 60 days.

"We want to make it as convenient as possible for the consumers," Aiello said.

Among the retailers who have not changed their return policies is Amazon.com. The online retailer gives customers until Jan. 31 to return items purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.

But returning items to online stores requires a lot of care. Most online retailers expect customers to return the merchandise with its original packaging and in unused condition.

Mark Griffin, the general counsel for Overstock.com, says Overstock.com operates much like its online competitors, and incidences of fraud are rare on returns.

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"We monitor the process carefully," he said.

When a product is returned Overstock.com tries to refund the money without any credit or discounts, Griffin said. While most of the time the company will give customers the benefit of the doubt, if the item returned is opened or used, it will reduce the amount of the refund.

With the changing return policies, returning the gift can turn out to be more of a hassle than choosing a gift for a loved one. But the key to simplifying the process is reading the fine print when purchasing a gift.

Lyndsey Shaw, who works at the customer service center at the Best Buy in Brentwood, Mo., said many people don't know about Best Buy's extended return policy during the holiday season and expect a store credit instead of money back when they make returns. Items bought between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 can be returned for a full refund until Jan. 31.

"They get excited to get their money back instead of the store credit, which usually people don't want," she said.

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