Return policies increasingly complicated

For years, an old holiday cartoon by Dick Guindon of the Detroit Free Press has been hanging on my refrigerator. It shows a guy in a flannel jacket asking the lady in the store: "What can I buy for the woman who returns everything?"...

For years, an old holiday cartoon by Dick Guindon of the Detroit Free Press has been hanging on my refrigerator. It shows a guy in a flannel jacket asking the lady in the store: "What can I buy for the woman who returns everything?"

Always reminded me of Mom and Dad. He often just gave her cash for the holidays.

That may not be a bad idea these days, either, since taking back stuff is not as simple as it used to be, when you just needed to have a receipt and meet an early-January deadline.

Now, there are restocking fees that could cost $45 at some stores if you're returning an opened $300 iPod; there also are different return dates for electronics vs. everything else, and some other, complicated rules.

The rules keep changing -- sometimes right in the middle of the holiday season.


For example, Best Buy recently shocked the retail world by eliminating most of its restocking fees. And remember, if you return too much, there's also the possibility that you may be discovered as a "compulsive returner."

Yes, there are such people.

"Compulsive returners are doubters," said April Lane Benson, a psychologist and founder of Stopping Overshopping.

They may return things because they constantly find a lower price somewhere else, or because they're unsure of themselves.

"I've worked with people who have bought and returned the same item a dozen times," Benson said. "Think about all the time and energy that goes into that."

Some people spend too much and try to regain control by returning part of what they bought. Others just want another excuse to go to a store.

Benson's advice: Before you buy, ask yourself, why am I at this store? Where will I put this? How will I pay for it? Will I want to return it?

"The bottom line," she said, "is you can never get enough of what you don't really need."


True enough.

However, there are some things you buy or receive during the holidays that really must go back; about one in five consumers expect to have to return something, according to Consumer Reports surveys.

And that means digging for a retailer's rules and policies. Some are on the receipt, others you can find online and sometimes you just have to ask a clerk -- preferably ahead of time.

When I inquired about some video games I was buying at Toys R Us, a clerk wrote right on top of my receipt: "45 days, w/receipt, UNOPENED."

Many retailers are generous with their return policies, but rules vary by store and even by item within a store.

Michigan, unfortunately, does not require retailers to post any specific notices at the register that extra fees can be charged for restocking certain items.

At Sears and Kmart, for example, there's a 15 percent restocking fee if the packaging is opened, and on consumer electronics, mattresses, built-in home appliances and special-order hardware, sporting goods, lawn and garden and automotive items.

So if you paid $200 for a video game player, you'd pay a $30 restocking fee if that package has been opened.


We saw one huge shift just a few days ago regarding restocking fees at Best Buy.

Best Buy eliminated nearly all of its restocking fees as of Dec. 18. It used to be that Best Buy customers could be charged a 15 percent restocking fee on opened notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, GPS/navigation and in-car video systems.

Not any more.

Kelly Heer, operations supervisor for the Best Buy store in Farmington Hills, Mich., said the change was so quick that some warnings still indicated that the restocking fees applied.

Customers, she said, appeared thrilled to hear the news.

One thing hasn't changed: Best Buy still charges a 25 percent restocking fee on special-order products, including appliances. These fees apply unless the item is verified as defective by the store's Geek Squad, the customer can show it's the wrong item or the fee is prohibited by law.

Bad publicity hit restocking fees hard this season. On Dec. 13, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for a crackdown on fees for online purchases. He also demanded that retailers provide full disclosure on restocking fees before purchases. He wants the Federal Trade Commission to require Web sites to prominently disclose restocking fees at the point of purchase.

In general, consumers need to ask questions -- particularly about special policies during the holiday season.


You don't want to turn into a compulsive returner. But it's a good idea to be compulsive about learning the terms and conditions for taking stuff back. You may never have many happy returns, but at least you'll know what to expect.



Before you take that back -- what you need to know:

--If you can tell at first glance you're going to want or need to return something, don't open the packaging just to be polite, especially on a CD or video game. Many stores will decline refunds on merchandise that's been opened or deduct a restocking fee from your return.

--Pay attention to when an item was bought. At Kmart and Sears, for example, there's a 60-day limit from the date of purchase on returns for consumer electronics bought Nov. 14 to Dec. 11. The rest of the year, it's 30 days. On most other purchases made Nov. 14 to Dec. 11, there is an extended return period of up to 120 days from the date of purchase. The normal return period for most items is 90 days.

--Some policies vary based on whether the gift was bought online or in a store.

--Bring a photo ID. Some stores -- such as Best Buy -- require a government-issued ID with a receipt to make a return, according to Consumer Reports. Some stores track serial returners, even if the transaction is in cash.


--Return early in the season. You may do better at getting the exchange or refund you want.

--Ask for the receipt or gift receipt if you don't find one with the item.

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