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Many anxious retailers relaxing return policies

Now the real fun begins; fighting the crowds to take back the gifts you don’t want or can’t use. What can you expect at the return counter? It all depends on the store.

Now the real fun begins; fighting the crowds to take back the gifts you don’t want or can’t use. What can you expect at the return counter? It all depends on the store.

To deal with the down economy, many retailers are loosening their holiday return policies. They’ve extended the holiday return period, reduced restocking fees or are being more flexible with people who don’t have receipts.

The National Retail Federation says stores are doing this to provide better customer service. According to an NRF survey, the number of stores that will soften their holiday return rules will triple, from 3.4 percent in 2007 to 11 percent this year.

How can stores relax their return policies in this down economy? The industry says it’s gotten better at catching return fraud.

“Retailers seem to be finding a balance between providing good customer service to shoppers while preventing criminals from taking advantage of lenient policies,” says John LaRocca, NRF’s vice president of loss prevention.

Who’s naughty, who’s nice?
Every December, Edgar Dworsky surveys return polices for He is pleased and surprised by what he found this year.

“A number of stores are really making their return policies more lenient,” he says. These include Sears, Macy’s and Circuit City.

Macy’s reduced its restocking fee on furniture from 25 percent to 10 percent.

Sears significantly enhanced its return policy this year. “Whenever you can make things as customer-friendly as possible, people appreciate it,” says spokesperson Kim Freely.

Sears normally offers a 90-day return policy on most items. But this year you have 120 days for purchases made between November 16 and December 23. The 30-day return period for electronics, software and mattresses is now 90 days.

Circuit City greatly expanded its 2008 holiday return policy. Last year, computers, cameras and certain other items had to be returned by January 8. For everything else the deadline was January 25. This year, the holiday return period for all purchases is January 31. “We just think that’s good business,” says company spokesman Jim Babb.

Some stores tighten up
A few stores are bucking the trend. Dworsky says Best Buy is “clamping down a bit.” The giant electronics chain shortened its holiday return period for most items to January 24, a week sooner than last year. And it greatly reduced the holiday return window for computers.

Last year it was January 31. Now it’s 14 days from the date of purchase. For customers who bought a computer on Black Friday, to give as a Christmas or Hanukkah present, the return period has already expired. (Customers who are silver members of Best Buy’s Rewards Zone loyalty program get 45 days after Christmas to return computers.)

Spokesman Brian Lucas tells me last year’s extended return period for computers was just a test. “We decided it was best to go back to the way it was,” he says.

“May I see some ID, please?”
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to hand over your driver’s license in order to make a return – even if you have a sales receipt. For years now, retailers have tracked returns by asking for an address or phone number. They do this to catch fraud and stop people trying to abuse the return privilege.

Now, many retailers use an outside firm to do this. That company keeps a record of what you return tied to your driver’s license number or other government-issued ID. It looks at your return history to decide if your return should be accepted, based on the parameters set by that particular store.

That’s why the clerk at the return counter swipes the magnetic stripe or scans the optical bar code on your license – to link you to your file in the database.

Consumer advocate Paul Stephens with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says many shoppers find this troubling. He says most people can understand the need to present ID if they want to bring something back without proof of purchase. But he argues, “the consumer has the right to be frustrated” when they have a receipt, the item is in perfect condition and they are told their license must be swiped to make the return.

Like it or not, expect to see more of this. It’s the way retailers crack down on counterfeit receipts and the return of stolen merchandise. It also helps reduce the return of non-defective merchandise after it’s been used. Normally this involves expensive clothing (“wardrobing”) or big ticket electronics (“renting”). Think prom dress returned after the big dance or a big screen TV purchased in January and returned right after the Super Bowl.

What’s in your file? The largest company doing this – The Retail Equation – will let you see your report. Send an email here. Include your name phone number. When a representative calls you will need to provide your driver’s license number to have the database search done.

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