- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

Consumers expecting to return the Christmas gifts the children hated and the clothes that didn't fit have found it is more difficult than they thought, even impossible. Stores including the Gap, Target and Saks Fifth Avenue have tightened once-liberal return policies during the past year, demanding original receipts, offering stricter time limitations and asking for identification.
Retailers say their tougher policies benefit the consumer by cutting down on fraudulent returns. That, merchants say, keeps their costs down and, in turn, the prices they charge customers.
But having to deal with the knotty rules of returning, which not only vary from merchant to merchant, but also across product categories, is giving consumers a headache.
Bob Silber, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is stuck with a $60 computer mouse, a gift rejected by a family member. When Mr. Silber went to CompUSA right after Christmas and tried to exchange it, the store manager refused because the customer had missed the 14-day return deadline.
"I was a good customer. I purchased computers there," he said. "I'm not going back."
Debra Sjogren, a CompUSA spokeswoman, confirmed the company's time-limit policy, but she advised shoppers to speak to customer-service representatives if "they are not happy at the store level."
Abigail Carr of New York City gave away a "Winnie the Pooh" video her brother-in-law bought at Toys R Us for her son. She wanted an exchange or credit but didn't have a receipt, which is required for videos and electronic games, spokeswoman Susan McLaughlin said.
"I'm probably going to shop at smaller stores," Mrs. Carr said, noting that she was too embarrassed to ask her relatives for the receipt.
Susan Whyte Simon thought that getting a refund for a sweater her mother-in-law gave her from Banana Republic would be a cinch because she had a gift receipt and was returning it at the same store from which it was purchased. She was wrong.
Mrs. Simon was told she needed the original receipt for a refund. Now, weeks after Christmas, her mother-in-law, who is stuck with the sweater, hasn't found it.
"I think it is strange to give you a gift receipt when it isn't really a receipt," the 47-year-old Rockville resident said. She noted that Talbots gave her a refund with a gift receipt when she returned a holiday item.
Claudia Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Banana Republic, confirmed that gift receipts at Banana Republic allow for only exchanges and merchandise credits.
"It is unfortunate," she said of the situation, though she noted that the policy is posted in the store.
Ed Keller, chief executive of RoperASW, a New York market-research company, said strict return policies are short-sighted.
"Consumers want it all these days," he said. "They're looking for discounts. They're looking for convenience, and for customer service. If one retailer doesn't treat them well, they can go elsewhere."
With that in mind, Circuit City Stores Inc. is using its relatively flexible return policy as a competitive edge, promoting it in its TV advertising campaign. Customers may return by Jan. 31 products bought in November and December to get an exchange or return, provided they have a receipt.
In April Circuit City dropped its 15 percent re-stocking fee, which was applied to personal computers and related accessories returned after being opened. A re-stocking fee is a standard practice for certain consumer electronics items.
"It's a good consumer-friendly offer," said Jim Babb, a spokesman for the Richmond chain.
Catalog retailer L.L. Bean Inc. has no time restrictions on returns, although receipts are preferred, spokesman Rich Donaldson said.
Still, most stores are enforcing tougher policies, as they have seen returns rise over the past several years.
Apparel retailers have one of the industry's highest return rates about 10 percent to 12 percent of sales, said Karl Bjornson, senior manager of Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting company. He estimates that return rates have risen by a couple percentage points during the past few years.
He and others recommend that consumers be aware of stores' return policies, which are posted on merchants' Web sites, listed on the back of receipts and posted at stores.
Target was one of the first major retailers to tighten its policies, in November 2001, when it began enforcing a rule that a receipt was needed for a return. It also limited the time frame for returns to 90 days, spokesman Douglas Kline said.
Target will exchange some merchandise without a receipt but on a limited basis. The exchange may be made for an item of equal or greater value in the same merchandise category, with the shopper paying the difference.
At Gap Stores Inc., one of the changes made was that customers must present valid identification for all returns and exchanges without an original sales receipt. But as an added benefit, Gap offers customers cash for returns on merchandise paid for by check, after a five-day waiting period. It used to be that if customers paid by check, they could get a refund only with a check sent by mail.
At Gap's Old Navy stores, customers who don't have receipts can exchange merchandise for only the exact items (changes in color or size are allowed). They may also opt for store credit by mail for the current selling price.
And last year Saks Fifth Avenue imposed a 60-day limit for returns of items to be exchanged or credited at the purchase price. After 60 days, the store will credit the customer based on the merchandise's current selling price.

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