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

Consumers who want to return gifts or other merchandise purchased from online or traditional "brick-and-mortar" stores can avoid surprises by taking a little extra time to understand the store's return policies.

Some stores enforce strict return policies to prevent retail fraud involving returning used or stolen goods. According to the National Retail Federation, of the $219 billion in merchandise that consumers return annually, over $11 billion of that is fraudulent.

Return policies vary greatly from store to store. Stores that give cash refunds for returns may require you to show identification.

Almost all retailers impose a time limit on returns. If you know you will return an item, don't wait. Some stores only allow returns up to 14 days after purchase. Other stores allow consumers to return items as much as one year after purchase. 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 unless the items are defective. 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. Sometimes the price of an item changes after you have purchased it. Stores that accept returned merchandise without a receipt might only refund the item’s lowest price. Some stores might give you an in-store credit instead of cash. If you have lost your receipt and used a credit card for the purchase, the store may be able to locate the original receipt information in its system.

Before You Purchase An Item

The best way to avoid an unhappy return is to know the store’s return policy before making a purchase. Look for a posted return policy at the cash register or in the customer service area. You can also ask a store clerk.

Online shoppers should examine a store’s website to determine whether returns are allowed. If the online store allows returns, you should search the store’s website for information on how to return items. If the information is not posted on the store's website, you should be cautious about purchases. If you decide to proceed, you should first contact the store. Ask for the return policy in writing. Be sure to print and retain the return information (along with all receipts, packing slips, and other documentation).

You should ask yourself the questions below whether you are making in-store or online purchases.

  • Does the retailer allow returns? If so, what is the timeframe for returns?
  • Do you need a receipt or gift receipt to return an item?
  • Will you receive a refund for the item returned? Will the store only give you a store credit? With gift receipts, some stores will not provide a refund. Instead, they may give you a store credit for the item’s original purchase value.
  • Does the store charge a "restocking fee"? Some online stores charge a percentage of the purchase price to accept a return. Certain electronics retailers charge a 15% restocking fee. This fee is subtracted from the refund price of items like opened laptops, projectors, camcorders, digital cameras, and in-car video systems. A 25% restocking fee can be charged on returned special order products like appliances unless the item is defective.
  • Does the retailer have special holiday return policies? Retailers sometimes extend return timeframes for purchases made during the holidays. Or they may provide free shipping on returns during this time.
  • Are you responsible for paying shipping and handling charges for returned items? These charges can be quite expensive, especially if insurance is required.
  • Will the store charge an "open box" fee? Will the store simply refuse to accept items after the package has been opened? Such restrictions are common for purchases of computer equipment, music, movies, video games, software, and collectibles.
  • Will online stores require advance authorization for returns? Many stores require consumers to contact the company and obtain a return merchandise authorization (or "RMA") number. Or you may need to follow other instructions before returning goods. Some stores have special shipping instructions.
  • If the online store has a retail store in your area, can you return online orders to the store? Many retailers offer consumers this convenience. Be sure to ask about the store’s policy. Some will allow you to return most, but not all, items to the store.
  • Does the store guarantee satisfaction or your money back? Some online stores do not offer guarantees or allow returns, but many do. Even if a guarantee is offered, there may be conditions attached. Those conditions include 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. Make sure you give the gift receipt to the gift recipient along with the gift. Also, when gift-giving, be sure to include all the original tags and packaging materials. Some stores will only accept returns if the item has its original packaging. Some stores even require that packaging be unopened. So, if you plan to take something back, don't open it.

Steps To 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 the store refuses the return of items that are defective or not as represented, you have a legitimate complaint. You can also complain if you discover that the store is not honoring its return policy. If you paid by credit card, you may wish to contact your credit card company and dispute the charges.

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

Consumer Protection Team

P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
517-335-7599
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: