Now that the season of gift giving is over, it's time to prepare for what's next: return season.
According to the National Retail Federation, nearly $60 billion of holiday merchandise was returned last January. If you're worried about how your gift might be received, a retailer's return policy might be something to consider.
Personal finance site GOBankingRates.com investigated the return policies of leading U.S. retailers to find the best and worst stores when it comes to handling returns.
"Not everyone is good at gift giving," said Jennifer Calonia, editor of GOBankingRates.com. "If you're worried about finding the perfect gift for a loved one, consider a store with a great return policy. A return policy can truly make or break a purchase; many major retailers carry the same brands."
Returns can be made with just the membership number used to buy the gift at some locations. Most items purchased through Costco have no return time limit, but exceptions for electronics are enforced, with a time frame of 90 days for items like televisions, projectors, computers, cameras, camcorders, touch screen tablets, MP3 players and cellphones.
The company doesn't have a formal policy regarding receipts and deals with situations on a case-to-case basis. As long as the item doesn't have excessive wear-and-tear and the store carries that product, most items can be returned. There is no specific time limit to return gifts, but obtaining a cash refund requires a valid government-issued ID.
Zappos is known for its quick and free return shipping. Zappos' return policy honors its standard free shipping on returns, as long as the item is still in its original packaging and is unworn. Customers have a year to return a product, and refunds are given in the original form of payment.
Under its newly changed REI one-year return policy timeline (30 days for REI-Outlet purchases), customers still benefit from the convenience of open returns and a 100 percent guarantee. All customers need to have is a proof of purchase, which can be in the form of a store receipt, gift receipt, shipping invoice or via an REI membership number. In-store returns for items bought online are permitted at no extra fee, but mailed return costs will need to be paid by customers.
Walmart's return policy is typically 90 days, with exceptions for certain items like electronics that have shorter periods, typically 15 to 30 days. For the holiday season, the return period for those items will begin Dec. 26, not the original date of purchase. Returns must be in their original packaging, but a receipt is not required. Customers have the option of getting a cash refund for purchases less than $25, a gift card for purchases greater than $25 or an even exchange on all items without proofs of purchase.
Returns can be performed in-store or online at no additional cost to customers, as long as mail-in returns are accompanied with a prepaid label from Target's website. Returns require either a packing slip, the credit card used to make the purchase or a printed receipt from Target's online return center. A government-issued photo ID is required for return transactions without a receipt. When a gift receipt is used to initiate a return, customers will receive a refund in the form of a Target gift card.
7. The Home Depot
General return time period is 90 days, unless otherwise noted on the receipt or order invoice. Returns will be immediately credited, and customers without a receipt will still be able to receive store credit or a gift card priced at the lowest selling price of the returned item as long as they have a valid license.
Macy's has no time limit to make returns on gift purchases. Shoppers who have a gift receipt will be issued credit for the full purchase amount via a Macy's gift card, while those without a receipt will still receive a gift card, but only worth the item's lowest selling price in the last 180 days.
Customers have up to 12 months from the original date of purchase to start the return process. Outside of this time period, returns can still receive store credit or a corporate-issued refund check. Those who have the original receipt have the option of receiving a full refund or even exchange, while those with a gift receipt will get a merchandise credit. Shoppers who've lost either of the above receipts can still return an item in-store, and store credit or a corporate refund check will be issued.
Apple is offering an extended holiday return policy this season. Goods that were purchased through Apple.com between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25 may be returned through the first week of the New Year, with a deadline of Jan. 7. The standard policy allows returns only within 14 calendar days of the purchase, aside from iPhones, which have a 30-day limit. Those who are returning a gift have the option of getting an electronic Apple gift card available to use in-store or online.
Sears' standard return policy is structured on a tiered system, in which certain products have a 90-day, 60-day or 30-day window to submit a return. Required in the transaction is the original packaging and original receipt or packaging slip. Each return window has a list of items eligible for return.
2. Best Buy
The retailer is offering extended holiday returns until Jan. 15, 2014, if the item was purchased between Nov. 3 and Dec. 31, 2013. However, Best Buy also tiers its return periods based on membership, and membership is determined by how much a customer has spent annually. Annual spending of $1,500 earns customers the convenience of a 30-day return window, while shoppers who spend $3,500 a year are granted a 45-day return window. Customers who have spent less than $1,500 that year have a return time of just 15 days.
3. American Apparel
In American Apparel's return policy, it's explicitly stated that "all gifts must be returned by mail."