Consumers at the returns counter of some big-box retailers will find stricter policies in place. Many stores are getting tougher on how long a customer can wait before bringing back an item, particularly on big-ticket electronics products that can be devalued quickly by newer technology.
"We're in a tightening period overall, said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, based in Massachusetts. "But some retailers offer an extended return period during the holidays. They take away with one hand and give back with another."
Earlier in the year, Best Buy cut its regular return period from 30 to 15 days, although members of its My Best Buy incentive program get up to 45 days. The Richfield-based electronics retailer still accepts holiday returns until Jan. 15, compared with Jan. 24 in 2012. Nearly 28 percent of retailers change their return policies for the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation.
Sears and Toys 'R' Us also have shorter return windows on some electronics. Even Costco, known for a liberal return policy, now limits its returns to 90 days for most electronic items.
Sears continued to offer an extended holiday return policy through Jan. 24, but major appliances, vacuums and several other categories must be returned within 30 days year-round. Exchanged items are ineligible for a subsequent refund, only another exchange.
Toys 'R' Us allows electronics items purchased after Nov. 1 to be returned through Jan. 9, but after the holidays, the period is reduced from 45 days to 30.
"Models become outdated so quickly in electronics that stores can't afford to take them back," said Dave Brennan, co-director of the University of St. Thomas Institute for Retailing Excellence.
Add to that a meager profit margin of 10 percent or less on many electronic items and it's not surprising that stores also are slapping restocking fees on them, he said.
Compare that to clothing, which often has a 50 percent gross margin, and consumers will find very few retailers invoking a restocking fee. In fact, apparel retailers have the most liberal return policies. Anthropologie, Kohl's, Macy's, Lands' End, J.C. Penney, L.L. Bean and Nordstrom don't generally specify the number of days to return an item.
But even some liberal policies have new restrictions this year. Outdoor gear and clothing supplier REI used to have no time limit on returns, which could be brought back in any condition and for any reason.
Its unconditional return policy was so legendary that some customers referred to its moniker as standing for "Rental Equipment Inc." instead of Recreational Equipment Inc. But earlier this year, the company put a one-year limit on returns after noticing more customers abusing the policy.
Experts aren't expecting major changes next year. Policies deemed too strict can result in a violation of consumer trust and a loss of customers who won't buy from stores without a no-hassle return policy.
Michelle Lasswell of Northfield prefers stores with unrestricted return policies. "I'm more likely to shop at retailers that make returns easy," she said. In fact, 88 percent of consumers consider a store's return policy when choosing a retailer, according to Harris Interactive. Having a hassle-free return policy can boost business.
But retailers have to protect themselves against serial returners who commit fraud by switching price tags or returning stolen items for gift cards that are then sold online. Retailers are expected to lose nearly $3.4 billion, about 6 percent of all returns, because of fraudulent return during the holidays, according to the NRF.
Retailers such as J.C. Penney, Victoria's Secret, Express, Sports Authority and Staples reportedly use third-party technology to keep track of customers' return patterns. Others such as Home Depot, Target and Wal-Mart use an internal program, said Dworsky. No matter the program, consumers are generally unaware that retailers are tracking returns without receipts.
When making a return without a receipt, ask if the store has a lookup system when the purchase was made with a credit card or check. Best Buy, Target, Menards, Macy's, Costco, Kohl's, Lowe's and Kmart can find a receipt simply with a swipe of the credit card.
Without a receipt, it helps to be friendly and polite at the returns counter. "And don't forget to mention if you're a good customer," Dworsky said.