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What makes a great return policy?
Enough time to get that mistake back to the store? Recouping your money without having to dig through a pile of receipts? Receiving that return in whatever form is most convenient for you? And, if you're buying online, how about free return shipping?
These days, with a lot of merchants, you have to pick and choose which points are most important to you. When it comes to returns, very few retailers offer it all.
Some stores might give a full return within a certain window of time -- but you need a real receipt, not a gift receipt. Others have a very short time window but might not require much paperwork. And some are lenient on time but might limit you to a store gift card.
Don't forget that rules can also change depending on what you bought or how you paid for it. And a handful of stores also assess those pesky restocking fees.
It's enough to make even a veteran shopper dizzy.
During the holidays though, many of the major retailers will offer more liberal return policies, says Teri Gault, co-author of "Shop Smart, Save More."
Here, in no particular order, are five stores that are earning a reputation for making returns easy.
The return policy is that there is no return policy, says Colin Johnson, spokesman for Nordstrom. "You won't find one posted at the cash register or on your receipt. We're just going to stand behind our merchandise. The bottom line is that we work with the customer."
The highlights to this kind of thinking for a consumer are that there's no time limit, no receipt required and no paperwork. And you get treated the same whether you have a gift receipt or purchase receipt.
If you bought online from Nordstrom.com, the store provides free return shipping, he says. Or you can take the item back to a local store.
"The way it works is we ask our people in the stores to use good judgment," Johnson says. "The ultimate objective is taking care of the customer. It really depends on the situation. You really can't have a rule book that takes into account every scenario."
The chain's discount store, Nordstrom Rack, operates a little differently with respect to returns because items come from closeouts and special purchases, says Johnson. There, you'll have 30 days to return items, and receipts and tags are preferred, he says.
Bottom line, Johnson says, is that employees "try to remove the clutter -- the policy-type stuff that can get in the way of taking care of the customer."
You'd think an online shoe store would be a tough sell, since shoes are all about fit.
But Zappos.com has built a business around making returns easy so that customers can order several pairs, try them on and ship back the ones that don't work. As a result, the retailer is as famous for its return policy as it is for its shoes.
"The return policy for Zappos.com is if you're not 100% satisfied with your purchase, you can return it for a full refund," says Corey Schreiber, content developer for Zappos Insights.
The highlights to Zappos.com's policy are that you have one year to return merchandise. Because you're shopping online (and orders are tracked), you never need a receipt. Shipping is free for orders and returns. And for returns, you can print out shipping labels at the Zappos site, or the company will email or snail mail them to you, he says.
One cool feature is the company's "advanced exchange." If you need a different size or color, the company will ship it to you for free. All you have to do is send back the first item within the next two weeks, he says. All the shipping is free, and you don't have to worry about carrying two items on your credit or debit account.
"We use it as a 'wow' tool," says Schreiber.
Just what every consumer needs: No time limits and no receipts required.
If you bought online from L.L.Bean, you can return the merchandise to your local store, or you can send the item back using prepaid labels you can print from the site.
It's all part of the Maine-based retailer's "100% satisfaction guarantee," says Carolyn Beem, an L.L.Bean spokeswoman. "We are one of the few companies out there that lets the customer define what 'satisfaction' is," she says.
Return shipping is $6.50 (deducted from your refund) or free if you have an L.L.Bean credit card or are sending back the item because it's defective, she says.
During the lifetime of a product, if you find you're not happy, "We encourage you to return it for a refund, store credit or replacement," Beem says.
"It's a pretty simple policy," she says.
Membership club Costco is another retailer trying to make returns easy.
Shoppers are members who pay fees to join, so "We will refund in full at any time (if) a member is dissatisfied," says Franz Lazarus, an executive vice president with Costco. Members generally get the refund in the same form they paid, while nonmembers would likely get cash or store gift cards, he says.
With consumer electronics, which tend to have a shelf life, there is a 90-day window to return, he says. "That's the only exception."
And that's been the only change to the return policy over the years, says Lazarus. "We felt at one point several years ago that we had to initiate that because technology was changing so rapidly."
You also don't have to have a receipt, he says. "(While) we like for there to be a receipt because it makes the process easier, we would not refuse a refund because there was no receipt."
Buying online? "Anything that's purchased online can be returned to one of our locations," he says. And return shipping is free.
If you paid via credit card, debit card, gift card or check, the store can track your purchase and refund the full amount without a receipt, says Jessica Deede, spokeswoman for the retailer.
The store's return window is 90 days. The one exception is consumer electronics, which have a 30-day return window.
Target even offers shoppers a generous "gift" during holiday time. For holiday purchases (anything bought in November or before Dec. 24), that 30-day clock doesn't start until Dec. 26, she says. That way shoppers "don't have to hold off or wait," to buy, Deede says.
With the actual receipt (or searchable purchase record), you'll get all of your money back. If you have a gift receipt, you'll get a gift card or exchange, she says.
If you paid by check, consult a calendar. If it's been less than seven days, you could be offered cash or a gift card, says Deede. But if the store has had at least a week to clear the check, then you'll get a cash refund, she says.
Buying online? Most products can be returned to your local store, says Deede. (To be sure check the "shipping & returns" tab before you buy, she advises.)
And if you want (or need) to ship it back, shipping costs are deducted from your return, says Deede.