Be prepared for tougher store return policies after holidays

November 17, 2013 

As you’re double-checking your holiday shopping list, tack on a reminder to read each store’s return policy before making your purchase. Some retailers are feeling a little less generous when it comes to returns. Such stingier policies are intended to combat return fraud. Fraudulent returns cost retailers $8.9 billion in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation, $2.9 billion of which occurred during the holiday season.

Customers can expect tougher return policies to spread. “As retailers see competitors or stores with some of the most lenient policies tighten up, it’s going to signal to them that they can do the same,” Phoenix retail consultant Jeff Green said. “We’re going to see a shift toward a shorter, 30-day return policy in 2014.” Customers also can expect added scrutiny when taking back merchandise without a receipt.

Retailers want to identify the bad actors. To do so, some companies are gathering data on customers who return merchandise, watching for suspicious patterns and warning or denying repeat offenders. Clerks might ask for state-issued identification, such as a driver’s license, before you can make a return.

If you exceed a retailer’s limit for the number of returns within a given time frame or for the value of returned products, you could be denied more returns for a period of time (typically 90 days). If you are given a warning or denied a return, the Retail Equation, a company that collects return information for 27,000 merchants in North America, will provide you with the information in its return-activity report over the phone. To request your report, go to theretailequation.com/consumers.

Despite the general trend toward Grinchier return policies, some retailers are giving shoppers a break during the holidays or when shopping online. Last year, 10 percent of retailers relaxed their return policies for the holidays, and similar promotions are expected this year. Lenient online return policies and acceptance of returns in stores for items bought online will likely continue. Look for more stores to offer free shipping for both purchases and returns.

Kaitlin Pinsker is a reporter at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

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