You may think of your favorite aunt as a real peach, but that's no guarantee she won't send a lemon of a holiday gift.
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The good news? You don't have to be stuck with it. After all, exchanging unwanted presents is as much a day-after-the-holiday tradition as leftover turkey sandwiches.
But easy gift return policies increasingly seem like a ghost of Christmas past. Today, retailers are tightening the terms of exchanges or gift returns. They want to know more about you and why you're returning your present. And they want to protect themselves against theft and deception.
The potentially unpleasant process of a gift return has a better chance of being merry and bright if the gift box includes a gift receipt. "Gift receipts are going to be essential in this environment," says Nikki Baird, an analyst with Retail Systems Research, based in Miami.
With receipts, customers returning holiday gifts can obtain cash back, a store credit or a credit card adjustment on most merchandise. Some retailers will give cash back for returned gifts without receipts, but it's more likely they will only give store credit. And if the item ever had a sale price, that's the likely value of the store credit you'll receive.
Still, experts say that you may get preferred treatment if you use certain savvy strategies. Specifically, some retailers may bestow exceptions for frequent customers.
"Some retailers are getting smarter about returns, allowing better customers more leeway with non-receipt returns than they might to a shopper they don't know," says Baird. "So if you receive something that you want to return, you should check and see if the retailers you spend the most money with carry the item even if you know it wasn't purchased there, because they might give you less grief than someplace you don't shop regularly."
Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist with Global Hunter Securities LLC in New Orleans, says don't be afraid to play the loyalty card. "If you are a loyalty card holder or member, then you might enjoy better return policies," Hastings says.
What if you get a gift card for a store you don't care for? Lots of luck. Few, if any, companies will give you cash back if you try to return it. You can auction it off on eBay or trade it in for cash at a Website such as PlasticJungle.com, Cardpool.com or GiftCardRescue.com, but don't expect to get face value.
"Worst case, there is always regifting or eBay," says Baird.
It's not simply a case of shopkeepers getting Grinchy, says Tod Marks, a senior project editor with Consumer Reports. In the past, some stores discovered they'd given cash back for stolen merchandise. "You're talking about bands of people who steal and then attempt to return the goods (for cash)," he says. "Stores want to guard against outright theft, but it makes it harder for people to return."
Some stores may ask to see your driver's license or other identification, Marks says. They may be checking to see if the returner has been part of a previous fraud case or has returned merchandise before. "Stores do not like serial returners," he says.
Consumers can also expect retailers to ask more questions, and the queries won't necessarily revolve around why you don't want the gift. Retailers figure that since they have returners at the counter, it is a good time to gather market information. They may request an e-mail address.
One way to take the stress out of gift returns is to go early, says Marks. The crowds are thinner.Even better, do some thorough research before you go. Most retailers' gift return policies are posted online. Some have time limits on returned goods, although few are likely to quibble if an item bought in November is exchanged before New Year's.
But remember that timetables can vary within a store. Some products, such as electronics, may have shorter return thresholds than other goods. Similarly, items bought online may have a different gift return policy than those purchased in the store.
Invariably, some consumers won't even try to return some unwanted gifts. For instance, about $5 billion in gift cards go unused every year because people forgot about them or couldn't find anything they wanted, according to Consumer Reports
That prompts Marks to say consumers should shop wisely for their loved ones. "Know what they want," he says. That way, the remaining 11 days of Christmas won't be spent in exchange lines.