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How to Handle Holiday Returns Without Hassle

Wal-Mart's (WMT - Get Report) return policy is 90 days for most items, but the clock doesn't start ticking on goods bought after Nov. 1 until Dec. 26. After that, you have 15 days to return products such as computers, cameras and GPS devices and 30 days for a second-tier category that includes garden supplies, hardware and other goods. Macy's (M - Get Report) has no return deadline for most goods, but customers have exactly three days to take back a piece of furniture.

This year, some retailers have put time back on the clock and made it worth a consumer's time to give return policies another look. Best Buy (BBY) extended its regular policy 60 days for some members of its Reward Zone program, while Toys R Us now offers its 45-day electronics return policy even if the package has been opened -- which not the case a year ago. The biggest change came from Amazon (AMZN - Get Report), which did away with its 30 category-specific return policies and implemented a flat Jan. 31 return deadline for most items shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.

Both TJX's (TJX) T.J. Maxx and Marshall's stores realize how far back the holiday calendar has crept and, until Jan. 8, will accept returns on items bought between Oct. 21 and Dec. 9. Asos gives customers until Jan. 31 to bring back all clothing bought after Oct. 1, while Pottery Barn (WSM) has the same deadline for returning items bought from Oct. 15 through Dec. 24. Nordstrom (JWN), REI, Kohl's (KSS), Sears' Land's End, L.L. Bean and Gap's (GPS) Athleta are among the few retailers with no return deadline.

Watch those fees

This is usually the time of year when most U.S. consumers learn about the restocking fee, which is basically what a retailer charges you for opening something you didn't want.

Avoiding those fees is as easy as simply not opening the package, but if the damage is done, there are a few retailers who will make you pay dearly for the mistake. Sears will take an even exchange on some opened items, but charges a 15% restocking fee for electronics, missing parts and items clearly used. Amazon has restocking fees of up to 50% on open DVDs, software and worn books, which is generous only when compared with Overstock.com's (OSTK) 60% fee. That site will also outright refuse returns on televisions 37 inches or larger.

Look to third parties for help

Consumer Reports' ShopSmart notes that credit card companies and other intermediaries can get you a refund if retailers won't.
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