As anyone who's received a drugstore cologne gift set well knows, even Santa Claus gets it wrong sometimes.
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Friends and relatives? Yes, them too.
Hence the throng of customers who flock to shopping malls soon after the holidays to exchange or return less-than-ideal presents. Retailers generally try to accommodate their wishes, or provide store credit. But it's not always easy.
A recent National Retail Federation survey of 60 merchant loss-prevention executives estimated that fraud related to returned items this holiday season will cost the industry $3.8 billion. That's one reason many retailers are increasingly asking for identification and restricting how long a customer has to return an item, among other measures.
Likely to end up on the gift return queue in a few days? Here are five tips to consider before you head over to the mall or attempt to swap out that unwanted item purchased online:
1. KEEP GIFTS IN GOOD CONDITION
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Retailers will resist taking back a purchase that's not in good condition or in the original packaging.
Whether it's clothing or consumer electronics, make sure the item is free of wear, and that you have all of the parts.
"The biggest problem is when you don't have accessories like a remote control or a battery," said Mike Abt, co-president of Glenview, Illinois-based Abt Electronics, one of the largest independent retailers of electronics and appliances in the country.
But what if you lost part of an item and want to return it? Try offering to pay for the lost accessory. That'll make it more likely that the merchant will take the item back and issue you a refund or credit, Abt said.
And don't think a retailer won't open the box and take an inventory of the parts. Abt notes he's had customers bring back a box that looks like a recent purchase, but the contents were different.
"One time we found a bottle of Windex and a tomato soup can," he said.
2. DON'T STRESS THE RECEIPT
Having a gift receipt handy in case it's needed for a return is ideal. But don't worry if you've misplaced it. Odds are your ID will do. Nearly 71 percent of retailers now require customers who are returning an item without a receipt to show identification, according to the NRF.
Target requires a receipt for all returns and exchanges, but in most cases, within 90 days, it can verify purchases made using credit, debit cards and other electronic payment methods.
If you're being met with resistance, ask to speak with a manager. Often pleading your case to a store manager in person will be enough.
"Most retailers will comply with wishes to return merchandise," Abt said.
3. HEED RETURN DEADLINES
Be aware of how much time you have. It's not uncommon for certain items, like cameras and other electronics, to have a limit of 15 days for refunds or exchanges.
That's partly because some consumers will buy some items, like a GoPro camera or a TV, for a one-time use. Then they will attempt to return it for a refund. The practice is known as "wardrobing," which alludes to a similar scenario: When someone buys clothing to wear for one night and then returns the item in exchange for a refund.
"Retailers can't afford to be too lenient with certain products," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.
Check the store's policy online or the gift receipt for details on when the return window closes.
4. SELL THAT UNWANTED GIFT CARD
Got a Starbucks gift card? Not a big coffee drinker?
Several websites will pay for your gift card in cash. There's a catch, though: You'll receive less than the face value of the card.
During a recent look at Giftcardexchangeday.com, a $25 gift card for Starbucks brought up cash offers from companies such as GiftCards.com, Cardpool.com and eBay, among others. The offers ranged from $17.25 to $18. At best, that's a 28 percent fee to wring some of that coffee credit into cash.
5. ONLINE PURCHASE? GO TO THE STORE
If you received a gift that was purchased online, the return process typically means mailing back the item and waiting for a response, whether it's to give you a credit, cash or a replacement item.
For presents bought online, but through a merchant with a brick-and-mortar store nearby, skip the shipping and take the item to the store. Most will accept items that were originally delivered by mail.
Wal-Mart, for example, will let shoppers return items bought on the company website or at one of the retailer's big-box stores to its smaller, neighborhood markets, said Sarah McKinney, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
"If you don't have a receipt, if it's under $25, we'll give you the cash," she said. "Over $25, you get it back on the Wal-Mart gift card."