- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2003

Christmas has come, gifts have been exchanged, and it’s time to head back to the stores to return those unwanted presents — from too-small sweaters to duplicate compact discs.

One in three shoppers say they will return gifts after the holidays, according to the 2003 American Express Retail Index.

Many retailers try to make the return process easy, especially during the holidays. Shoppers usually have the option of exchanging an item, receiving store credit or getting cash for the merchandise. This time of year, shoppers can take advantage of longer store hours, extra store help and perhaps an even more-lenient return policy.

“Retailers don’t want to alienate their loyal customers by making their return policies too strict,” said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive of the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, will exchange, refund or repair its merchandise, usually within 90 days and even without the receipt, said spokeswoman Sharon Weber.

“In a perfect world, people will have their receipt,” she said. “Without one, we can only refund the current price, which is usually a disadvantage to the customer.”

Wal-Mart will designate four to eight cash registers at each store for returns only through Thursday.

“We strive for hassle-free return policy,” Ms. Weber said. “The bottom line is we want our customers satisfied.”

Online retailers with brick-and-mortar stores, such as Barnes & Noble and Circuit City, allow merchandise to be returned to its stores.

Circuit City’s policy, detailed on its Web site, allows a full refund for returns until Jan. 31 for anything bought online or in stores during the holidays. The consumer electronics chain won’t charge restocking fees, which are common when electronics are returned.

“As long as we have order confirmation or a record of your purchase in our system, we’ll refund or exchange any gift,” the Web site says.

Other online retailers, such as Amazon.com, give instructions on returning items and printing out mailing labels.

Amazon generally wants items returned within 30 days of delivery for a full refund, but the online giant extended its policy for the holidays. Orders shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned until Jan. 31.

Retailers expect merchandise to be returned within a reasonable amount of time — usually 30 days from purchase, said NRF spokesman Scott Krugman.

Consumers can receive cash if the merchandise is unopened and has a receipt, he said.

“Most consumers are satisfied with store credit,” Mr. Krugman said.

Returns might be a blessing for some retailers. Consumers returning the unwanted gifts could spend more than the cost of the returned item or buy some other products while at the store.

“Half the challenge is getting people in the store,” said Duncan Simester, professor of marketing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

About 28 percent of consumers who return a gift and buy something new spend more than the cost of the item, according to the American Express survey. Most consumers spend about the same.

The NRF suggests returning unwanted gifts as soon as possible to take advantage of stores’ extended hours, extra help and deep discounts.

“The week after you’ll find good deals,” Mr. Simester said. “But the stores will be crowded. It’ll take some effort and patience.”

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