- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

Millions of shoppers turned to the Web this holiday season as a convenient alternative to crowded malls, scarce parking and long lines. But "convenient" may not describe the return policy for on-line purchases.
Every on-line retailer from Circuit City and Toys 'R' Us to Amazon.com and Etoys.com has its own policy for on-line returns.
If consumers aren't aware of the differences, they may find themselves paying extra, sending merchandise to the wrong address or missing return deadlines.
"Because we are fairly early on in e-commerce in general, there are no set return policies," said Jill Frankle, director of retail research for Gomez Advisors in Lincoln, Mass. "It will be fairly confusing for consumers."
"A lot has to do with what the consumers' expectations are," she said. "If they thought it would be completely hassle-free, some consumers will be surprised."
The return policies differ depending on the industry and the retailer.
Some click-and-mortar retailers like Richmond-based Circuit City and Eddie Bauer allow on-line purchases to be returned at their physical stores, while other merchants, such as Barnes & Noble, require the on-line merchandise to be shipped back to them.
Circuit City's Internet site, www.circuitcity.com, clearly spells out the rules for returning merchandise through the mail or making in-store returns.
The rules for returning it to a store are simple: The product must be returned to the store with its original box, packaging and all manuals and accessories within 30 days from the product's receipt. Computers and related merchandise may be returned within 14 days of the receipt, but must be unopened or shoppers will be charged a 15 percent open-box fee.
Eddie Bauer offers in-store or mail returns. Shoppers can mail the item back with the return form and label and allow 14 business days for the package to be credited or an exchange to be made. Or the consumer can bring the item, with the shipping invoice, to one of Eddie Bauer's 500 stores.
Even Toys 'R' Us, which e-mailed frustrated shoppers just days before Christmas warning their shipments would not arrive in time, allows unwanted toys to be returned at the stores.
Those who shopped at Barnes & Noble's web site (www.bn.com) will have to send unwanted merchandise, with its return slip, to Rockleigh, N.J., for a full refund, instead of returning it to one of the bookseller's stores.
Barnes & Noble won't accept on-line returns at its stores because they are separate entities, Ms. Frankle said.
Some on-line merchants pay the cost to return the item, but the majority won't. And in some cases, consumers will pay the return shipping fee and be only credited the cost of the item, not including the original shipping costs, Ms. Frankle said.
Etoys.com, which provides a pre-addressed return label, asks consumers to fill out the return form on the back of the packing slip to avoid errors and process returns faster. The toy retailer charges the customer's credit card $3.95 when it receives the package. However, the customer will not be charged the return shipping costs if the return is because of an Etoys error.
The U.S. Postal Service in November introduced its Electronic Merchandise Return Service, which is supposed to make returning Internet-purchased merchandise quick and convenient.
Customers can contact the on-line merchant, which has partnered with the Postal Service, and tell it they want to return an item. The retailer provides the customer, via the Web, a prepaid return label that the customer can print out from a computer and put on a package.
"This is going to be the true test for Internet retailers the customer service portion of it," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
It is important for the merchants to continue focusing on customer service for the next several weeks as they handle questions about purchases and return policies, Ms. Frankle said.
Amazon.com gives full refunds within 30 days of receipt of an order. Customers can ship all non-electronic merchandise to the e-tailing giant's returns department in New Castle, Del., including in the shipment the packing slip and using the return label provided. All electronics returns must be approved by Amazon.com's customer service department.
"It's important for customers to do their research," Mr. Krugman said.
While the results are still out, the holiday season was expected to bring in at least $6 billion in on-line purchases. The buying frenzy may have run smoothly for some retailers, but others were unable to handle the crunch.
"There are still kinks in the system," Ms. Frankle said. On-line merchants will invest heavily this next year to streamline their operation, she said.

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