3 Tips to Master Holiday Returns

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- You don't want it and they don't want it, but when Christmas is over and you have unwanted presents retailers are loath to restock, there are ways of making them take your holiday return.

When retailers approach holiday return season, they're not nearly as concerned with customer satisfaction as they are with "best practices for accepting customer returns and controlling return fraud and abuse that help to maximize profits and minimize losses," as the National Retail Federation puts it in a recent report on Consumer Returns in the Retail Industry. They want to trim the $14.8 billion the NRF estimates was lost last year to "return fraud" -- usually stealing an item or paying for it with a stolen credit card or bad check and returning it for full cost, using counterfeit receipts; or buying an item such as a television just before the Super Bowl and returning it after use.

They also consider last year's $185.5 billion in returns "lost sales."

This means tighter return policies and tougher restrictions for consumers, who may soon have to have their driver's license scanned into a database when making returns, have that database used to approve or reject their purchases and have return policies withheld from them in an attempt to stop frequent offenders, as Smart Money magazine reported last month. This comes as annual return rates have jumped nearly 11% in the last three years.

Last year, little more than 8% of all purchases were returned, compared with 7.26% in 2007. That number rises to 10% to 20% for online retailers, according to Forrester Research (FORR) , which credits Web retailers' liberal return policies and streamlined processes for the disparity. Returns around the holidays last year jumped to 9.75%, or 23% above the annual rate, but that didn't make retailers any more willing to help with those returns. While 52% of stores made return policies more lenient for the 2008 holiday, only 28% relaxed those policies last year.

"Don't leave that pair of jeans sitting around the house for a month, because in that month's time the item could be marked down or they could get a whole new style in, and that can drop the sales price," LaRocca says. "Retailers might be more reluctant to scrutinize the return."

With that in mind, TheStreet spoke with the NRF's senior asset protection adviser, Joe LaRocca, and Consumer Reports Executive Editor Greg Daugherty about how consumers can handle returns without getting hassled by retailers. Here are some simple steps to follow to ensure not only a happy return, but a full-priced one as well.

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