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Take that back!

Return policies vary widely during the season when shoppers undo their giving. But the way to avoid hassles remains the same: Bring a receipt.

By Steven SavidesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2003

The biggest surprise of the holidays for Kimberly Moreland did not come when she opened her gifts, but when she tried to return one.

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A month before Christmas, Ms. Moreland learned that an Xbox video game console she had bought on the website in September did not include the system's most up-to-date controllers.

The one-month period Amazon normally allows for returns had expired a few weeks earlier, but the mother of four assumed the company would at least allow her to exchange the system.

Instead, says Moreland, Amazon came off looking like a humbug. The company refused to budge on its policy, causing the Marlboro, Conn., resident to feel she was being penalized for shopping early.

"It was only a month and a half after I bought it.... It was under a month over the deadline," explains Moreland.

Many shoppers are finding themselves in a similar boat. Return problems also arise when the giver uses a credit card to buy a gift, the packaging has been opened, or the receipt has been lost.

"Some retailers have tightened their policies," says Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation (NRF) in Washington. But, "there are as many return policies as there are retailers," so some are more accommodating than others.

The upshot is this: Make doubly sure you know what the return policy is before you buy and always keep your receipt.

Efforts to tighten return policies reflect the need of some retailers to protect themselves from being taken advantage of by consumers. Ms. Tolley explains that the tougher policies aim to combat "return fraud." That happens when people return shoplifted or used products.

Shoplifting reached a staggering $10.2 billion in 2001 and accounted for one-third of all inventory shrinkage, according to the NRF. The group expects shoplifting related losses to rise in 2002, regardless of how much of that was due to return fraud.

"The crime that occurs in retail stores is actually larger than motor theft, bank robbery, and household burglary all put together," says Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail studies at Syracuse University. "I don't think people realize what retailers are facing a lot of the time."

Ms. Nicholson, however, is not surprised that some retailers have cut back on the "very, very liberal" returns policies that Americans have become accustomed to in recent years. "I can understand why [retailers] are tightening up a bit," she says.

An early sign of tightening standards emerged in November 2001 when Target announced a "no receipt, no return" policy. The company stuck with the policy, despite receiving significant criticism from customers, says Sue MacDonald, a spokeswoman for PlanetFeedback, a Cincinnati firm that channels consumer feedback to companies.

"That triggered a higher-than-normal complaint flow to Target through all of the shopping season in 2001, and people are still complaining about it," Ms. MacDonald says.

Asking for receipts eliminates the possibility of making refunds for shoplifted goods. Moreover, in the current economic environment - with sales being held more frequently and prices shifting more dramatically - retailers have had more difficulty determining how much money they should give back to the consumer.

Amanda Murray of Fairview Park, Ohio, ran into the no-receipt wall at Target the day after Christmas when she tried to return the shower curtain she received from her sister. Without a receipt, store officials would only allow her to exchange the item for something from the same department, valued at the same price or more.

This policy, says Ms. Murray, is unfair. She expressed her sentiments in a letter to the company vowing to "never shop at Target again."

Eugene Fram, a marketing professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, says retailers are justified in penalizing customers who break contracts. But in the long run, the risk to retailers might be too great. Two recent studies Mr. Fram and a colleague conducted on the effects of penalties on consumers show that people vote with their feet.