PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- All of those gifts you bought at Black Friday sales in July and big events in October? Yeah, stores really don't want you to return those. At all.
Even with a shortened holiday shopping calender, retailers aren't too keen on flexing their return policies and allowing you to take back dud gifts you bought at bargain prices while shopping early. This year, in some cases, that even includes items sold on Black Friday.
A Consumer Reports survey found that one in five Americans, or nearly 50 million, expected to return a Christmas gift lin 2011. Roughly the same percentage of all adults were stuck with a bad gift the year before, though 18% donated the offending present, 15% regifted it and 22% either returned it or just threw it out.
That led to 9.9% of all holiday purchases being returned to retailers in 2011, up from 9.8% a year earlier and a scant 8.8% back in pre-recession 2007. In all, consumers brought back $58.5 billion in presents, which was a significant increase from the $39.7 billion in products they returned six years ago.
That made the entire retail world stamp its feet and cry like a child that didn't get what it wanted for Christmas. Under the guise of attacking "return fraud," which retailers say accounted for $3.3 billion of all returns last year, 27.9% of all retailers said they were changing their return policies for the 2013 holiday season.
That doesn't mean shoppers are completely out of luck, however. Macy's customers have unlimited return times on anything that's not furniture (three days) or a mattress (60 days) and charges only its 15% restocking fee for those two categories. Kohl's has an open-ended return for all items, while Costco's own open return policy applies to everything but electronics, which get a generous 90-day policy of their own. If you shopped at Buy.com, meanwhile, anything you bought after Thanksgiving doesn't have to be returned until Feb. 15.
Even with those lenient policies in place, there are a whole lot of retail Scrooges, Grinches and Scut Farkuses out there who love nothing more than making you feel as if you've been mugged when you have the audacity to show up at their customer service counter. Even if you show up nice and early with your return, there's no guarantee that swapping your items will be a pleasant experience.
A survey by customer service software firm Zendesk indicates that December is the absolute worst month for customer service, with a special place in hell reserved for those who call a customer service agent on Dec. 29. The average time it will take for you to hear back from an agent? A full 66 hours, or more than two and a half days later. And expect everybody else in the U.S. to be calling at the same time you are. Saturdays are the worst day by call volume, while 6 p.m. is the absolute worst time to check in.
Unless you have a spare morning -- when Zendesk advises calling at 9 a.m. -- you're stuck until January. Unfortunately, that's also when a bunch of tight-fisted retailers are going to make you pay for waiting so long -- despite your lack of choice in the matter. Just to let you know what you're up against, here are the five worst offenders when it comes to holiday returns. Good luck getting anything but a hearty laugh in exchange from these folks:
We've mentioned on several occasions that Sears is a zombie retail chain that inhabits the earth only because there's no more room in retail hell. Stores haven't been updated since the '90s, stock is disheveled and being sold off brand-by-brand and management so distracted by finding buyers for its various parts that it shows almost no interest in getting its remaining customers to buy anything.
If you've stubbornly stuck by this company and did your Christmas shopping at its stores, don't expect it to make returns easy on you. Its multi-layered return policy comes with an entire table parsing out the difference between its 30-day return products, 60-day returns and 90-day returns. Meanwhile, the holiday return policy that was supposed to simplify matters does no such thing:
Items purchased between 11/17/13 - 12/24/13 with a standard 30-day return period, can be returned through 1/24/14. Items purchased between 11/17/13 - 12/24/2013 with a standard 60-day return period can be returned up to 60 days from the date of purchase or by 1/24/14, whichever is longest.
Wonderful ... except that this shortens Sears' return policy for major appliances and vacuums from 60 to 30 days and excludes them from its extended holiday return period. It also doesn't mention the store's 15% restocking fee for used items, nor its outright refusal to grant refunds.
Let Sears continue its miserly ways during this holiday return period. The chain's Christmas future isn't looking so bright.
Toys R Us
You would think that the largest dedicated toy store chain in the U.S. would have to have a pretty sweet return policy to stave off angry parents and encroaching competitors, right?
In some cases, that's true. Kids who got three of the same Monster High dolls from various relatives can take them back until Jan. 25 thanks to the store's extended return deadline. If customers bought anything remotely electronic from the chain from Nov. 1 onward, they only have until Jan. 9 to bring them back.
Yep, you have little more than two weeks after those presents are unwrapped to bring them back for any reason. Did you get an Xbox One for a kid with a library full of Playstation 3 games? No backward compatibility for you. Did you get a kid his or her second educational tablet of the season? Guess you'll have to brave those after-Christmas sales to reach the return counter, won't you.
Convenience? You got your convenience when Toys R Us let you buy that product on Thanksgiving night. Convenience ends once the giraffe gets his money. Don't expect Geoffrey to stick his neck out for you again.
That tends to draw a lot of customers who generally wouldn't pop in for reams of paper or toner. It also creates a separate set of rules that applies only to those newbies. You see, if you buy any office supplies at Staples short of desks or office chairs, you have an unlimited amount of time to return them.
Unfortunately, the Staples folks don't like having the non-cubicle rabble around for too long and have decided that all electronics and furniture bought from Nov. 24 onward need to be returned by Jan. 11. Again, you have exactly two weeks to bring these items and get your non-buttoned shirt out of their store.
In fairness, some of those items that typically fall into the store's 14-day return policy, so the chain feels it's cutting you a break. It only stocks many of those more gifty items around this time of year, though, so the brevity of its return policy is only enhanced by the glut of typically non-Staples stuff at the front of the store and in its displays.
How many times does this chain need to be booed for the terrible changes to its return policies in 2013? As many times as customers' voices will allow.
Best Buy made the "Naughty" column of Consumer Reports' "Naughty and Nice List" this year for requiring customers to present a photo ID with returns even if they have a receipt, for storing your ID information in a database that tracks your returns and warning customers with unfavorable return histories "that subsequent returns and exchanges will not be eligible for returns or exchanges for 90 days."
And this store wonders why people use it as a showroom for online competitors with less creepy return policies. The folks who run Best Buy seem aware that people don't feel the need to go into their stores and stroll amid employees less informed than an online ratings field to buy electronics, but they also provide little incentive to make a purchase there. After Best Buy had a horrid holiday season last year, it trimmed its return time for most customers from 30 to 15 days.
To celebrate this year's holiday shopping season, it trimmed its holiday return policy by nine days from last year's mark. Now holiday customers who shopped from Nov. 3 onward have to bring everything back by Jan. 15 at the latest.
Electronics deadlines are tightened just about everywhere in retail, but when Costco give you a 90-day return window on those items, Target gives you 30 days (with the clock starting the day after Christmas) and both Amazon and Overstock taking back unopened electronics without a fee until Jan. 31, Best Buy just keeps finding ways to maroon itself on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Marshall's, T.J. Maxx and Home Goods
You spend more than a month subjecting us to your idiot commercials about "fancy Claus" and some "Gifter" character that's the even more superficial version of the Priceline Negotiator, only to give your shoppers less than two weeks to return items?
TJX, you're just not good at this.
If you're one of the customers unfortunate enough to have bought an item from any of the stores in this company from Oct. 20 to Dec. 8, you have until Jan. 7 to bring it back. It doesn't care what your holiday plans are or where you'll be for New Year's. It, quite frankly, seems to hope you'll be a whole lot of elsewhere so it can hold on to the cash you paid for overstocked or slightly defective name-brand items.
It's a cheap move by a chain that excels at cheapness, but it has one major, redeeming loophole. If you're one of those shoppers who didn't start until well into December, the store's 30-day return policy still applies. That means the most lenient policies are reserved for the procrastinators who picked over stores just before Christmas and put off some of their biggest shopping until the last minute.
If you're part of that slow-but-savvy crowd, congratulations -- you don't have anything to worry about until late January. If you're not, however, prepare to stand in line at the returns desk with all of the other early birds during the next week or so.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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