Need to return holiday gifts? Deadlines at major retailers are shrinking this year

Kohl’s, Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond have made some significant changes to their return policy that you should know about.
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Before you head to the store and wait in line, check the store's return policy and ensure you have the receipt required. Gabby Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images file
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By Herb Weisbaum

Of course, it’s the thought that counts. But some holiday presents just miss the mark — wrong color, wrong style or simply wrong — and need to be returned.

It’s something most of us plan to do. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of the 15,800 consumers surveyed by Oracle earlier this year, said they expected to return some of their holiday gifts.

Retailers know this will happen, so most major chains have special holiday policies that give you extra time to bring things back. In some cases, gifts purchased in November can be returned until mid- to late-January. But don’t wait too long.

The 2019 Return Policy Survey by ConsumerWorld.org shows that several major retailers have “significantly shortened” their return periods.

“Return deadlines are shrinking. You no longer have unlimited time periods to bring goods back,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor at Consumer World, a consumer education website. “Stores that had no return deadline just a few years ago, have been tightening their policies in stages, with some now down to 90 days or less.”

Shorter return periods help reduce customer abuse and prevent stores from being stuck with outdated merchandise, Dworsky told NBC News BETTER.

Here’s a closer look at some of the significant return policy changes Consumer World highlighted in its report:

  • Kohl's: 180 days from purchase for most items (no longer unlimited). Premium electronics bought Nov. 1 - Dec. 25 are returnable until January 31.
  • Bed Bath & Beyond: 180 days for most items. Anything electric must now be returned in 90 days instead of a year. If there is no receipt and the transaction cannot be located in the store’s computer system, a 20 percent fee will be deducted from the refund.
  • Macy's: 90 days for most items. It also has 25 exceptions to the new 90-day rule and further limits return periods for certain categories of items; Jan. 8 for tech items, for example.
  • Walmart: 90 days for most items. For purchases made from October 24 onward, 30 days for TVs and electronics, and 14 days for cellphones (but days for electronics and cellphones start counting on December 26).
  • Best Buy: You have until January 14 for most purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. Major appliances are now excluded from its extended holiday return period. Best Buy sometimes adds 15 to 30 days for Elite members, but not for major appliances any more.

A few special mentions:

  • Amazon: Its policy remains the same this year: January 31 for most items shipped 11/01 thru 12/31. For late returns, there’s a 20 percent restocking fee. But Amazon has about two dozen exceptions to its regular 30-day return policy, Consumer World noted.
  • Target: RedCard holders get 30 extra return days. Everyone gets free return shipping for items purchased online at Target.com. Store brands have a one-year return period.
  • Costco: No deadline for most items, 90 days for: TVs, computers, cameras, smart watches, MP3 players, cellphones, monitors and major appliances.

Reducing the hassle factor

Generally, a retailer can set any return policy it wants, even if you don’t think it’s reasonable. In some cases, you can only get a merchandise credit. At some smaller stores, all sales are final.

The only way to know what you’re entitled to is to read the return policy before you head to the store.

“Some of them can be quite long, but you will save yourself a lot of time and heartache, if you read through that policy,” said Michael Bonebright, consumer analyst at DealNews. (DealNews just published a list of the holiday return policies at 49 big-name stores.)

Some stores require a receipt, others don’t. Your best bet is to have a gift receipt. Even so, don’t expect to get cash back or a credit to your credit card, Dworsky said.

“The only one who can get money back is the purchaser, if they bring back the goods,” he said. “If you, as the gift recipient bring it back, at best you’re going to get an even exchange, a gift card or merchandise credit.”

UPS expects to handle a record number of gift returns – more than a million packages a day in December, leading up to an anticipated 1.9 million packages on Jan. 2.

Returning gifts that were purchased online

There’s little doubt this will be a record holiday season for online shopping. Many of those presents will be headed back. UPS expects to handle a record number of gift returns – more than a million packages a day in December, leading up to an anticipated 1.9 million packages on Jan. 2.

Last week, Amazon announced that it is offering customers “at least one free return option on millions of items.” Free returns are now available for electronics, household items, pet supplies, kitchen appliances and more, the company said, in addition to shoes and apparel, “no matter the reason for the return.”

Amazon how has more than 18,000 return drop-off locations at Amazon Books stores, Amazon 4-Star stores, Amazon Hub locations, select Whole Foods Markets and more than 1,000 Kohl’s stores and 10,000 UPS Store and UPS Access Point locations nationwide.

FedEx and UPS are making it easier to ship something back to any online retailer. FedEx has drop-off location at Walgreens, while UPS has them at CVS Pharmacy. Be sure to check webpages for locations, specific details and restrictions.

If your gift came from a smaller online clothing retailer, you might be able to stop by one of the Return Bars run by California company Happy Returns. They currently have 400 Return Bar locations, including Cost Plus World Market, Paper Source, Office Depot and Bed Bath & Beyond.

After-Christmas sales

Expect long lines at the return counter for at least the next week or so.

You can head to the stores this week to snag the post-Christmas bargains on clothing, jewelry, toys and holiday decorations, and go back again right after New Year’s to handle your returns.

At Walmart, the process could go a little faster for customers with the store’s app. With Walmart’s Mobile Express Returns you can start the process at home: Just find the purchase and answer a few questions (such as why you returning the item). At the customer service desk, you hand over the merchandise and scan the QR code from the app. The associate completes the return and you get a confirmation in the app and you’re on your way.

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