No receipt, no return, no exceptions. Many of the nation's biggest retailers are ratcheting down on returns, with one-quarter tightening...

Share story

No receipt, no return, no exceptions.


Many of the nation’s biggest retailers are ratcheting down on returns, with one-quarter tightening their policies this holiday season to combat return fraud.


Shoppers looking to swap or return holiday gifts will face stricter time limits, restocking fees of as much as 25 percent, new receipt requirements and other hurdles at many stores, including Toys R Us, Office Depot and Sears, consumer advocates say.


But other stores, including some prominent local companies, make a point of offering flexible return policies as a way to build customer loyalty.


REI says it will take returns “anytime, anywhere, for any reason” — and it has a down climbing suit from the 1970s to prove it.


A man who dreamed of climbing Denali in Alaska originally bought the puffy red suit, which then sat unused in his closet for nearly 30 years. He returned it to REI in 2003 for a full refund.


Some shoppers say they know exactly which stores have a customer-friendly approach to returns, and that influences where they shop and what they buy.



A guide for happy returns


What to know before returning or exchanging:


• Keep your receipt. If you’re buying a present, enclose a special gift receipt (which usually shows a barcode or description of the item to facilitate returns but not the price you paid). Save original packaging and price tags.


• Resist the urge to open the package if you think you’ll return it.


• Don’t dally. Many stores are imposing stricter deadlines on returns.


• Read about the return policy before you buy. The law requires stores to clearly explain their policies, although merchants are not required to accept items for return, exchange or credit unless they are defective or misrepresented.


• Note that return policies may be different for the brick-and-mortar store and its Web site.


• If you pay by credit or debit card and lose the receipt, some stores can look up your purchase if you’re trying to return the item. Some credit cards also offer extra benefits like extended return periods.


• Smaller, locally owned stores may be more flexible with returns.


• If your return is denied, or if you’re asked for ID in making a return, you may be on the radar of The Return Exchange, a California company that tracks returns for many major retailers.


You can request a copy of your return activity report by contacting The Return Exchange: 800-652-2331; ReturnActivityReport@TheReturn
Exchange.com
.



Sources: State Attorney General’s Office;




National Retail Federation; Angie’s List.




Jolayne Houtz, Seattle Times staff



“I’ve pretty much stopped shopping at some stores,” said Jenny Muilenburg of Lake Forest Park.


She vividly recalls trying to return a pair of faulty Levi’s to Macy’s. She’d lost the receipt, and Macy’s put up a fight about taking the jeans back.


So Muilenburg walked across the street to Nordstrom, which gladly exchanged the Macy’s jeans for a new pair. (Nordstrom says it occasionally gets returns from other stores and takes them on a case-by-case basis.)


“I frequently have to grab things quickly, have kids try them on at home, and then take back the ones that don’t work,” said Muilenburg, the mother of five. “Sometimes I’ll return $300 worth of stuff, and I’m wondering when is someone going to yell at me?”



Frequent returners



Retailers say they have good reason to crack down.


Return fraud is expected to cost them $3.5 billion this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.


Their biggest problem: the return of shoplifted items or items purchased fraudulently.


New policies also are meant to cut down on “wardrobing” — people who buy a special-occasion dress for the holidays or a plasma-screen TV for the big game, then return it after using it.


Some merchants now use special tracking systems to keep tabs on frequent returners, cutting them off if they try to return too much.


A California return-tracking company, The Return Exchange, reportedly counts Sports Authority, Staples and The Limited among its clients. Other companies such as The Home Depot and Wal-Mart reportedly use their own internal software to track returns.



Return policies at six area retailers


• Costco: No time limit except for computers (six months). No receipt requirement. Costco.com items can be returned in-store.


• Fred Meyer: No time limit or receipt required except for home electronics (30 days in most cases). Electronics may be subject to a 10 percent restocking fee.


• Nordstrom: No time limit. A receipt is helpful but not required. Nordstrom.com items can be returned in-store.


• REI: No time limit. A receipt is helpful but not required. REI.com items can be returned in-store.


Target: Most items must be returned within 90 days. Camcorders and other portable electronics are subject to a 15 percent restocking fee. A receipt is required (stores offer a receipt look-up service unless it was a cash purchase). Most Target.com items can be returned in-store.


• Toys R Us: Most items must be returned within 90 days (45 days for video games, computer software, DVDs, trading cards and some other items). A receipt is required. Some Toysrus.com items can be returned in-store.


Additional store return policies are listed at these two Web sites:


blogs.consumerreports.org/shopping/
2006/11/many_happy_retu.html
www.consumerworld.org/pages
/returns.htm


As much as one-third of a retailer’s sales can boomerang back to the store, with returned goods estimated to exceed $100 billion, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group.


Some businesses try to discourage returns by erecting barriers — giving store credit only or requiring a customer to purchase a second product before getting a refund for the first, the analysis found.



“Outsourcing” returns



And others may be trying to “outsource” their returns — to their competitors.


On a consumer-complaint Web site, My3cents.com, “Electrojones” of Seattle said she went to Toys R Us last month to return a faulty DVD.


She didn’t have a receipt, she said, but she figured it wouldn’t be a problem to simply exchange a defective product.


The answer was no, not without a receipt. But you could take it back to Fred Meyer, the clerk helpfully suggested, since they have a more “lax” return policy.


“I was flabbergasted,” she said.


Earlier this year, Toys R Us changed its policy to require receipts for all returns, spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said.


It is not company practice to refer returns to other retailers, she said, calling the Seattle shopper’s story an isolated case.



Hang on to that receipt



More than ever, that little slip of paper you jam into your purse after a purchase is your ticket to a happy return.


Return policies vary greatly between stores, between items, even between bricks-and-mortar stores and their online equivalents.


“It’s going to be really important for consumers to take some steps on the front end to make returns easier,” said Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List, which offers a guide to Seattle-area services rated by consumers.


That means hanging on to receipts; asking for a gift receipt at the beginning of your transaction; and knowing the policies of the stores where you shop.


It’s not all bad news for shoppers. Sometimes stores loosen their return requirements during the holidays.


Amy Eng of Renton said she recently purchased a digital camera. Her receipt said she had 30 days to return it, but when she asked, she was told the return deadline had been extended until after Christmas.


Some stores now offer to look up your purchase if you can’t find your receipt. That’s the case with Target: If you pay by check, credit, debit or gift card, Target can look up your purchase and complete your return or exchange if it’s within the store’s 90-day return deadline.


And Eng said Costco recently was able to look up her purchase of a prepaid phone card she bought in April and never used. The company, which happily refunded Eng’s money, is widely considered to have one of the most liberal return policies.


But for more retailers, the days of no-questions-asked returns are ending. And it appears shoppers are starting to get that message.


Nearly six in 10 holiday gift-givers now enclose a gift receipt at least some of the time, up from half last year, the National Retail Federation says.


Some cope by skipping the return line altogether.


A recent Angie’s List poll found 12 percent have given up returning things at all because it is such a hassle.


Better to be stuck with that too-small reindeer sweater, apparently, than fight their way to the front of the return line.



Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or jhoutz@seattletimes.com