Sometimes it just has to go back, whether it’s a dress that looked a lot better in the dressing room or the holiday present so terrible you can’t even regift it. ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports, recently looked at ways to make the process of returns as painless as possible, including new shopper-friendly policies and gotchas to avoid:WHAT’S NEW— Digital receipts. Merchants are moving toward paperless transactions, which cut clutter and let you save receipts in one easy-to-search place. Apple uses them for in-store purchases, and companies including Hertz, Oakley and Whole Foods Market offer paperless receipts as an option.
— Easier holiday returns. Many retailers now offer extended holiday returns, including Amazon.com (any items shipped from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 31) and Pottery Barn (items shipped from Oct. 15 through Dec. 24 can be returned until Jan. 31). Check with stores for details.
— Free return shipping. Many retailers, including most shoe sites, pay return-shipping costs. Others include BeautyBar.com and Shopbop.com. Some retailers that usually charge for return shipping have exceptions — Old Navy’s plus-sized items and Banana Republic’s online-exclusive shoes, for example. So ShopSmart suggests reading the tiny type.
— Receipt lookup. No receipt? No problem. Stores are increasingly making it a nonissue. Target can now verify purchases made in the last 90 days, as long as you made it with a check or a debit, credit or gift card (that’s still in your possession). Macy’s will look up the electronic version of your receipt up to two years later, and Lowe’s customer service can locate most in-store receipts.
— Registry exceptions. Some retailers relax policies for items you buy from their registry programs. Pottery Barn extends its 30-day policy for most items to 90 days after purchase or after the event, whichever is later. The Land of Nod offers free returns for gift-registry items.
— Leap Year bonus. Make a purchase at Zappos on Leap Day (Feb. 29) and get until the next Leap Day to return it — that’s four whole years!
7 GOTCHAS TO AVOID
— Not all stores take back online purchases. Macy’s stores won’t let you return area rugs or lighting purchased online. Ann Taylor won’t take back swimwear, extended-calf boots or “wedding and event” clothing in-store, and Loft has the same policy for maternity and swimwear items. Sports Authority won’t take any online purchases back in its stores.
— Some gift cards aren’t returnable. Apple, Kenneth Cole and other stores ban gift-card returns. Nordstrom, known for its open-ended return policy, won’t take back gift cards. Bloomingdale’s will, but there’s a catch: Money is refunded to the purchaser’s credit card, so you could end up with no gift.
— Using PayPal can limit returns. You can get cash for in-store returns of Target items purchased using PayPal, but only store credit for online returns. At American Eagle Outfitters, you’ll get store credit no matter where you return.
— Free gifts can cost you. ShopSmart notes that if you return something that came with a promo item, many retailers will hold part of your refund hostage if you don’t also return the gift. Macy’s and Toys R Us deduct the value of the gift from your refund.
— No gift receipt could mean no return. Williams-Sonoma won’t take a gift back without a receipt unless it’s defective. Bloomingdale’s gives only store credit for the lowest selling price in the past three months for receipt-less gift returns.
— You may be stuck with outlet items. The Land of Nod, Crate & Barrel and many others won’t accept items bought at their outlets.
— Restocking fees can bite you. Amazon, for example, takes 20 percent for unopened media items and nonmedia items 30 or more days after delivery. Sears charges a 15 percent restocking fee for electronics without their packaging or accessories.