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Avoiding Unhappy Returns - Returning Merchandise Bought Online or In The Store

Consumers who may seek to return gifts or other merchandise purchased from online retailers or traditional "brick-and-mortar" retailers may avoid surprises by taking a little extra time to understand the merchant's return policies in advance.

Some retailers attempt to prevent retail fraud involving the return of used or stolen goods by enacting strict return policies.  According to the National Retail Federation, of the $219 billion worth of merchandise that consumers return annually, over $11 billion of that is fraudulent.  Not surprisingly, retailers that give refunds for returns may require you to show identification when you return an item.

Return policies vary greatly from store to store.  Some allow consumers to return items up to one year after purchase while others allow only 14 days.  Almost all retailers impose a time limit on returns, so if you know you are going to return an item, don't procrastinate.  In some cases, returns are not allowed at all.  If a retailer has a no-return policy, the law does not require the store to accept returns of items unless the items are not as represented or are defective.  Many businesses, however, do allow consumers to return merchandise.  The law that applies to returns generally covers both online and in-store sales.

Many stores require a receipt even if the item is a store brand.  Stores that accept returned merchandise without a receipt might only refund the amount that the item was sold at its lowest price, or they might only provide an in-store credit instead of cash.  However, if you can't locate your receipt, you may still be in luck if you made your purchase using a credit card.  Using your credit card, the merchant may be able to locate the original receipt information.

Before You purchase an Item

The best way to avoid an unhappy return experience - wherever you shop - is to find out what the merchant's return policy is before you make a purchase.  Look for a posted return policy at the cash register or in the customer service area, or ask a store clerk. 

Online shoppers should scrutinize a merchant's website to determine whether returns are allowed and, if so, what a consumer must do to return an item.  If the information is not posted on store's website, you should be cautious about proceeding with your purchase.  If you decide to proceed, you should first contact the merchant and ask for the return information in writing.  In either case, be sure to print and retain the return information (along with all receipts, packing slips, and other documentation).

The tips listed below regarding online sales generally apply to traditional retail store sales as well.  In particular, you should find out:

  • Does the retailer allow returns?  If so, what is the timeframe in which the return needs to be made?
  • Do you need a receipt or gift receipt to return an item?
  • Will you receive a refund for the item returned, or will the merchant only give you a store credit toward future purchases?  If you are returning your item with a gift receipt, some merchants will not provide a refund, but instead will give you a store credit for the original purchase value of that item.
  • Does the merchant charge a "restocking fee" to accept returns?  Some online merchants charge a percentage of the purchase price to accept a return.  Certain electronics retailers charge a 15% restocking fee on items such as opened notebook computers, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, radar detectors, GPS/navigation and in-car video systems, and a 25% restocking fee on special order products, including appliances, unless the item is defective.
  • If you are making purchases during the holiday season, check with the retailer about special holiday return policies.  Retailers might extend return timeframes, or provide free shipping on returns, for purchases made during the holiday.
  • Are you responsible for paying shipping and handling charges if you return an item?  These charges can be quite expensive, particularly if insurance is required.
  • Will the merchant charge an "open box" fee or simply refuse to accept items after the package has been opened?  Such restrictions are common for purchases of computer equipment, music, movies, videogames, software, and collectibles.
  • Will the online business require you to obtain any sort of advance permission before returning an item? Many merchants require consumers to contact the company and obtain a return merchandise authorization (or "RMA") number or other instructions before returning goods.  Some merchants may have special shipping instructions.
  • If the merchant selling online also operates a retail store in your area, can you simply return an item that you purchased online to the store?  Many such retailers offer consumers this convenience. But be sure to inquire about the details of a particular merchant's policy.  Some merchants allow you to return most, but not all, items to the store.
  • Does the merchant guarantee satisfaction or your money back? While some online merchants do not offer guarantees or allow returns, many do. Even if such a guarantee is offered, there may be conditions attached, such as time limitations or payment of shipping costs and restocking fees.

Gift Giving

If you purchase an item as a gift, ask the retailer for a gift receipt and make sure to give the gift receipt along with the gift.  Also when gift giving, be sure to include with the gift all of the original tags and packaging materials.  Some stores will only accept returns if the item has all of its original packaging.  Some stores even require that packaging be unopened.  So, if you plan to take something back, don't open it.

Steps You Can Take If You Are Having Trouble Returning Merchandise

If your return has been refused by a store clerk, ask to speak with the store manager.  If you have received goods that are defective or not as represented, but the merchant still refuses to allow you to return the merchandise, or if you discover that the merchant is not honoring its return policy, you have a legitimate complaint. If you paid by credit card, you may wish to contact your credit card company, dispute the charges, and request a "charge back."

Consumers may contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at:

Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Fax: 517-241-3771
Toll free: 877-765-8388
Online complaint form

Be sure to include copies of all documentation, including packing slips, printed copies of online disclosures, receipts, etc., with your complaint.

For additional information on shopping during the holidays, see the following Consumer Alerts:

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