There’s good news for consumers this holiday season. The chances of getting many happy returns after Christmas have improved a bit.

According to the annual survey of return policies by Consumerworld.org, more online stores are offering free return shipping. In addition, many retailers are allowing gifts bought in November to be returned into mid or late January.

“Bricks-and-mortar stores know that they may get more business if they have nicer return policies,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumerworld.org. “Internet retailers often have lower prices and quick delivery. Bricks-and-mortar stores realize that fair return policies bring people back.”

Retailers with the most consumer-friendly return policies, according to Gobankingrates.com, include Nordstrom, L.L. Bean, Bed Bath & Beyond, J.C. Penney, Costco, Staples, Zappos, REI, Kohl’s and Macy’s. Stores criticized in the same survey for having short return periods include Forever 21, Kmart, Barnes & Noble and GameStop. Sears was criticized for having a 30-day return period and not allowing returns without a receipt.

Nearly half of online retailers now offer “free returns” by paying the return shipping, according to the National Retail Federation. Target, Macy’s, Saks, Banana Republic and Bloomingdale’s allow free returns, and Amazon allows returns on select fashion items.

Vicki Brace of Lakeville said knowing a store’s return policy affects where she shops.

“It’s huge. I’m a returner,” she said while shopping at Mall of America earlier this week. “I like places like Nordstrom that can look up the receipt.”

Friends Carrie Pratt of Lakeville and Stacy Roitenberg of Waconia said they think twice before shopping at places such as Justice, Goodwill or Savers because of the short return period.

“If I buy kids clothes at Justice, and I miss the return window, I’m stuck with them,” Pratt said.

Convenience factors into the way they feel about a retailer’s return policy, too. The line at Wal-Mart’s service counter is often too long, Pratt said.

“There’s usually only one person handling a long line of customers,” she said.

Macy’s makes it easier, Roitenberg said. “They put that return sticker on every item at the register so I don’t have to bring a receipt if I return it. I love that.”

Having a receipt with the original tags attached will always make a return faster and easier, but many retailers can now look up a purchase that was paid by a credit or debit card or check.

Only a few retailers tightened their return policies this year, Dworsky said. Sears changed its 30/60/90 policy to 30 days for most items (although it is extended until Jan. 24 for most holiday purchases). Costco no longer accepts returns on tires, batteries and custom orders.

Target, on the other hand, lengthened its policy on its own brands of products to one year. Toys ‘R’ Us extended its holiday return policy so that most items purchased from Sept. 1 onward can be returned until Jan. 23 (exceptions include most electronics).

Consumers who have a problem returning an item should contact the store manager or customer service department. If that doesn’t work, try the Better Business Bureau or your credit card company. American Express, Discover and MasterCard have a return guarantee program that allows returns after a retailer’s time limit. There are lots of caveats, however, including dollar amount limits per item ($250 to $500), time allowed (within 60 to 90 days of purchase), and purchases limited to those made in the U.S.