Holiday shopping season can be a slow, difficult slog, but holiday returns season can be an absolute nightmare.

Retailers including Amazon (AMZN) , Target (TGT) , Walmart (WMT) and Kohl's (KSS) have holiday return policies that vary widely, based on what you bought and where you bought it, if you know how to maneuver around holiday return policies.

"If shoppers follow the rules, they should have many happy returns," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of online consumer resource guide Consumer World. "But, since the rules vary so much from store to store, you really have to read the fine print."

Market research firm ShopperTrak predicted in October that two of the busiest in-store shopping days of the holiday shopping season -- Dec. 26 and Dec. 30 -- would turn out to be the biggest shopping days of the season for one very specific reason:

Holiday returns.

"The last Saturday of December failed to make the list in 2016, as it fell on New Year's Eve," says ShopperTrak's Brian Field. "This year, however, we're expecting it to be a big day, one that's full of shoppers using gift cards, making returns and hitting the stores for post-holiday sales and replacement gifts."

According to a survey by market research and accounting firm Deloitte, one in five shoppers will spend 23% of their holiday budget after Christmas to take advantage of deals, and 44% say they hit the stores that time of year for "easy returns." 

But that just isn't going to happen in many cases.

Return policies can vary widely by retailer. A few examples:

  • Nordstrom (JWN) , Costco (COST) , JC Penney (JCP) , Kohl's, and Bed, Bath and Beyond (BBBY) offer broad, receipt-free returns with no time limits and few restrictions. Electronics, baby/maternity clothes and special occasion dresses tend to be exceptions.
  • Best Buy has a 15-day return window for most items, but the Apple Store (AAPL) will give you just 14 days. Forever21 stops taking returns on Jan. 7 for any item purchased after Nov. 13.
  • Orvis, Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean will accept any return at any time for a full refund, but Sears and Kmart will only offer exchanges or store credit for items purchased after Nov. 1 and returned by Jan. 31. If certain items are opened, Kmart and Sears may charge a 15% restocking fee or not accept them at all.

Consumers also have to be aware of some unwritten rules about holiday returns. Consumer Reports offers the following steps to take, which gives you the best chance at getting an exchange or full refund, and also cuts down on the time it takes to make a return:

  • Don't open the box. You'll be lucky if you're only charged a 15% restocking fee for taking electronics out of their original packaging. Software, CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs generally aren't returnable once they're opened, nor are items with missing tags.
  • Keep your gift receipt. While some merchants will turn you away without one, others will just give you store credit for the item at its lowest price. You'll have to shop at that store, and at a discount, too. 
  • Check return policies and time limits. Most retailers list that information online, but any brick-and-mortar retailer will have that information at the customer service counter. Many stores will extend holiday return deadlines into late January and allow you to return online purchases at stores -- but not all. Don't take a retailer's policy for granted.
  • Bring ID. Best Buy and Victoria's Secret are particularly keen on using computerized return-authorization systems to detect abuse. That means you'll not only need a driver's license or other government-issued ID when you return an item in person, but you'll also have your returns tracked by the store.

If you do your homework and come prepared, the holiday return process will be much simpler for you and those on your gift list. If you're run afoul of any of the issue above however, be patient: It's the brutal end of a long shopping season for everyone involved.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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