The 4 best (and worst) return policies this holiday shopping season

Shoppers beware: Failing to read a store's return policy could leave your friends and relatives stuck with unwanted gifts. Here are the stores with the four best (and four worst) return policies for 2012 holiday shopping. 

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
A woman fills her car with gas from Costco in Los Angeles, California, in this 2011 file photo. According to Bowsher, Costco boasts one of the best return policies among retailers for the holidays.

If you fail to read a store’s return policy before shopping there, you could get stuck with an item that doesn’t work out. But if you fail to read return policies before gift shopping, it’s a friend or relative who could get stuck with an unwanted item.

Fortunately, just about every store’s return policy can be found online these days, and they’re not hard to read if you know what questions to ask…

How to interpret a return policy

In-store purchases

  1. What’s the time window for return? This is especially important for gifts. For example, if you buy a Christmas gift on Black Friday from a store with a 30-day return window, the recipient won’t be able to return it after Christmas.
  2. Will the refund be in the original form of payment? Some stores issue certain refunds only in the form of store credit – especially for gift returns.

Online purchases

  1. What’s the time window for return?
  2. If you return an online purchase by mail, will you have to pay for the return shipping? (And will the refund be in the original form of payment?) Most stores will make you pay to ship a return, which is why the next question is important.
  3. Are online purchases returnable to brick-and-mortar stores? (And will the refund be in the original form of payment?)

The best return policies

The following stores offer a return window of at least 90 days, provide a full refund, and allow online purchases to be returned to stores…

Costco

  • Time window? None for most items (the exceptions – TVs, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, tablets, MP3 players, and cell phones – must be returned within 90 days).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes – and they’ll even refund the shipping.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, they’ll email you a UPS label, although you’ll have to take the package to a UPS drop-off spot.
  • Note: Costco even allows returns of Photo Center purchases that you’re dissatisfied with – just call 866-459-9284. They’ll also refund your membership fee at any point if you’re dissatisfied.

L.L. Bean

  • Time window? None.
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping unless you’re an L.L. Bean Visa cardholder.
  • Note: L.L. Bean never charges to ship purchases to you either.

Nordstrom

  • Time window? None.
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with the packing slip and the credit card used for the purchase.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping.

Zappos.com

  • Time window? 365 days.
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? N/A (Zappos is online only).
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, if the item is in the condition you received it in and in the original packaging. You’ll receive a prepaid return shipping label.
  • Note: Zappos never charges to ship a product to you either.

Worst return policies

If a gift recipient wants to return your gift, these stores will only offer them store credit, so make sure the gift recipient is a fan of the store or avoid gift-shopping there…

Babies R Us

  • Time window? 90 days for most items (see policy for exceptions).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, but only for store credit.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with the original packaging and any paperwork, but you pay the return shipping unless the purchase was damaged or defective.
  • Note: In-store purchases returned to a store are generally refunded in the original form of payment, but gifts are an exception. So even if you bought a gift in a store and it was returned to a store, the recipient will still only receive store credit – assuming they have a gift receipt.

Kohl’s

  • Time window? None.
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with receipt. If you don’t have a receipt – or if you have a gift receipt – you can still return the item but only for store credit.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping.
  • Note: If a gift was purchased in a store, it must be returned to a store and can still be returned only for store credit.

Macy’s

  • Time window? 180 days for most items (see policy for exceptions).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with invoice, for most items (excludes area rugs).
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with invoice and return form, for most items (excludes bridesmaid dresses), but you pay the return shipping.
  • Note: Gifts can be returned only for store credit, and food and gourmet gifts are nonreturnable.

Toys R Us

  • Time window? 90 days for most items (see policy for exceptions).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, but only for store credit.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with original packaging and any paperwork, but you pay the return shipping unless the purchase was damaged or defective.
  • Note: In-store purchases returned to a store are generally refunded in the original form of payment, but gifts are an exception. So even if you bought a gift in a store and it was returned to a store, the recipient will still only receive store credit – assuming they have a gift receipt.

Karla Bowsher covers consumer, retail, and health issues for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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