12 things you didn’t know about store returns

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Buyer’s remorse? If you think it’s too cumbersome to return unwanted items to the store, follow these tips to become a returns pro.

Whether it’s a single item or a bunch of impulse purchases you’ll never use, going back to the store is always a daunting task. Are you still on the return deadline? Do you still have the receipt? Are you prepared to face a store employee? Some of these possible scenarios are just plain stressful.

The more you know about in-store returns, the more likely you’ll be able to return items without making a fuss. Take note of these common return policies at popular stores so you’ll be better prepared the next time you find yourself in the customer service line.

1. Holiday return windows may be longer.

The average return period for stores in the U.S. is 30 days, a period that allows the store to resell the item while it is still in season. This return period is typically the default period between January and Black Friday.

Retailers typically generate a large proportion of their sales during the holiday season. To attract early season shoppers, many retailers try to entice customers to buy gifts by offering rebates or a longer return period, typically around 90 days. Each retailer has its own return policy for the holiday season, which you’ll find on the cash register receipt or in-store signage. Take advantage of longer return periods, especially for items you’re not sure you’ll keep.

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2. Some retailers have generous return policies.

Some stores have return policies that seem like magic. Here are a few worth noting:

Nordstrom allows returns on all items, with no time limit. While the receipt makes it easy to process the return, it is not mandatory.
Bath and Body Works allows customers to return any product for any reason. If you placed a bet on a fragrance and didn’t pick a winner, you can return it, no questions asked. If you have a receipt, you will receive a full refund. If you don’t have a receipt, you can make an exchange or get store credit.
Costco is known for its liberal return policy. Because the store wants you to be completely satisfied, it will refund the purchase price of any product. As a member, your account shows your purchases, so you don’t need a receipt.
Ulta allows you to return any item for any reason. If you don’t like a product, you can return it and find something you like instead.

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3. You can return items for many reasons.

There are many reasons for wanting to return an item in a store. The most obvious reason is that you do not like what you have purchased. Returns can also be useful if you received a defective, broken or dented item, or if the purchase did not meet your expectations. Returns are also useful if you have received a gift that you did not like. Whatever the reason, most stores offer the option of a refund or to use a shopping credit to choose an item you like better.

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4. Return policies are not a borrowing system.

Stores are not libraries. You may be tempted to use returns to try new and interesting things, but if people take advantage of return policies, stores may add restrictions or change their policies to offer the bare minimum instead.

We all know examples of this “try on” approach, such as buying a dress, wearing it to a party and returning it the next day, or buying a big TV to watch the big game and then returning it to the store.

Stores don’t offer returns so you can get a free “rental,” and you shouldn’t buy into a lifestyle based on returning items. To discourage this behavior, some stores track your returns and are less friendly the more you abuse their policy.

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5. A missed return window may be negotiable.

If you shop on Amazon, you already know that items are not accepted past the return deadline. If you miss the return deadline, in most cases you’re out of luck. You can always try going in person, calling the store’s customer service or chatting with them online, but don’t get your hopes up.

Retailer return policies vary. Depending on the company, they range from offering the actual price of the item to refunds on a case-by-case basis. Life is busy and empathetic customer service representatives may be more flexible about returning an item if you are polite and patient and understand that the company is not obligated to accept the item back.

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6. Ask about price adjustments.

You recently made a purchase after giving it a lot of thought, but the item went on sale as soon as you got home. If you had kept it, you could have saved some money, but it may not be too late.

If you find yourself in this situation, consider asking the store for a price adjustment. Approach customer service with your receipt and explain that you want to pay the lower price for the item you just purchased. Stores such as Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Walmart offer price adjustments. Note that price adjustments only apply to recent purchases, not to items purchased a long time ago.

If the store does not offer a price adjustment and you are still within the return period, there is a solution: simply return the item and purchase it at the reduced price.

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7. What happens to returned items?

When you return an item, what does the store do with it? In general, if the item is unopened and new, it can be placed back on the shelf and resold. If it has minor defects (dents or dings), it can be placed in the clearance or markdown section.

In the case of large retailers, it is common for returns to be destroyed and thrown away. Some companies, such as Amazon, may ask you to keep the unwanted item and refund you the amount without you having to return the product. It depends on the item (for example, food is not safe to keep or sell), but most returned products will not be put back on the shelf.

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8. You can purchase returned items at a discount.

Recovering returned items can save you a lot of money and prevent useful products from ending up in the landfill. Places like KrazyBins offer returned items to the public at discounted prices. These types of stores offer a tiered pricing system, with prices going down every day. If you don’t live near a store like KrazyBins, there are many online outlets for returned items. Target, Amazon, Walmart and others also put their returns on sale, and you can find entire pallets of items at low prices.

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9. Online shopping returns can be easy.

Shopping online is fun and convenient, but it’s often a gamble. Until it’s delivered to you, you don’t know if it works, if it fits, or if it lives up to expectations. If you’re unsure about an item, always check the return conditions on the seller’s website before clicking “order now.”

Companies like Amazon make it easy to return products purchased online. In the case of Amazon, just log into your order account and let the site walk you through the return process. A good tip to facilitate online returns is to reuse the item’s packaging. To do this, turn the bag inside out so that the inside becomes the outside. Place the item to be returned in the bag, tape it closed and send it off.

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10. You can sometimes return items without a receipt.

Each store has a different policy on returning items without a receipt, so don’t expect all retailers to be equally accommodating. That said, Walmart, Target and Kroger are three retailers that offer similar return policies for items returned without a receipt. Walmart offers an exchange, money back if the item costs less than $10, or a gift card. Target offers returns in the form of a merchandise return card (similar to a gift card). Kroger offers gift card returns for items over $10; items under $10 can be returned in cash.

Merchants may offer various solutions for non-ticketed products. So it is best to check each company’s policies before making a return.

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11. Quality guarantees make returning a breeze.

Clothing stores can offer quality guarantees: in other words, if a purchase doesn’t meet your expectations, you can return it no questions asked. Stores like Lululemon offer a “quality promise” that allows you to return products that don’t perform as expected (for example, if leggings give way or a seam breaks). For children’s clothing, check out Target’s Cat & Jack brand, which offers a one-year warranty. For easy returns, always check store warranties.

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12. Return unwanted gifts for something better.

If you receive a gift you don’t like, don’t feel guilty about wanting to return it. Instead of feeling obligated to keep a gift that doesn’t suit you, replace it with one you like. Don’t forget that the return period is usually longer if you received the gift during the holidays (see our first tip).

If the gift came with a receipt, it should be easy to walk into the store and get a refund, exchange or credit. However, if you don’t have the gift receipt, you can always take the item into the store and see what customer service can do for you. Remember to address the customer service representatives politely, as they will be more likely to find a solution for you.

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