While finding the best price on holiday gifts is always a smart idea, there are times when paying bottom dollar can actually cost you money. Sticker price aside, a crappy or unfair return policy can mean getting stuck with a duplicate item — or something you simply no longer need. And since store return policies aren’t created equal and aren’t exactly common knowledge, this is an area where what you don’t know can hurt you.
Year after year, we hear how certain retailers continue to make returns and exchanges nearly impossible. And sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if you have a receipt.
My Experience With a Crazy-Strict Return Policy
Unfortunately, I know exactly how this feels. A few years ago, my husband and I bought a set of portable DVD players for our car at Best Buy after scouring ads for weeks to find the best deal.
When we opened the set a few weeks later, however, the DVD players wouldn’t work — as in, they wouldn’t even turn on. Something was obviously wrong, so we packed them up and headed back to the store. Unfortunately, we weren’t met with open arms.
Unbeknownst to us, Best Buy only offers 15 days to return an item with a receipt outside of the holiday season. We were still inside this range, but just barely. However, Best Buy didn’t want to let us return or even exchange our DVD players — even though we were within their return window, and even though we had the receipt. According to the store manager, the items were used and thus, not returnable. It didn’t matter that we just opened the box and plugged them in to see if they worked.
After standing at the counter and complaining for 90 minutes, the store manager finally relented and allowed me to exchange the DVD players for the exact same item. Still, the entire experience left a bad taste in my mouth.
What if I hadn’t had time to stand there and complain for over an hour? What if I hadn’t been so vocal? Sadly, I’m pretty sure I would have been out $180 — and stuck with a set of useless electronic devices that didn’t work from day one.
Why Store Return Policies Matter
This is why store return policies matter. Even when you think you will never have to return an item, you can never know for sure. On a positive note, most retailers offer special return and exchange policies over the holiday season — even Best Buy. The key is knowing the return policy and making sure you’re prepared from the beginning.
Consumers need to arm themselves with information before making a purchase, says Caleb McElveen, marketing director at SavingThousands.com.
“The best tip I have for consumers and exchange policies is to go directly to the retailer’s website,” he says. “In most cases, they will have a FAQ page for holiday shopping including their return policy during this time.”
If you’re wary of a bait-and-switch trap after the holidays, you can even print out the policy while it’s available online. “You never know what can happen,” McElveen says. And if you’re unable to locate a store return policy, you can always call the store. However, many would probably view this as a bad sign. (I know I would.)
Five Stores With the Best Return Policies
If you want to avoid a tricky situation altogether, it’s best to stick to stores with fair return policies and a solid reputation when it comes to returns and exchanges.
Earlier this year, GoBankingRates.com studied the return policies at 31 major retailers to determine which offered the most generous terms — and the fewest roadblocks when it came to returning individual purchases and gifts.
“Return policies should be a big consideration for holiday shoppers — two-thirds of people return at least one holiday gift,” Elyssa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GoBankingRates study, said in a press release. “Shopping at stores that are return-friendly can make life a lot easier if you have to make adjustments to your shopping list later on. It’ll also allow you to give guilt-free knowing your recipient won’t face a lot of hassle if they decide to exchange or return the item.”
If you want to shop at stores that don’t make returns impossible, consider the retailers that took the top five spots in the GoBankingRates study:
No. 5: Costco
Despite its reputation as a big-box warehouse store, Costco offers a superior return policy that includes no fine print and few restrictions. The retailer offers full refunds on all products, although they prefer that you have the receipt and original packaging.
Costco even offers the same generous terms for returns if you can’t visit the store yourself, notes their website, although you’ll have to take the item to UPS for shipment.
The big exception to their rules (or lack thereof) are small electronics, televisions, cellphones, and projectors, which qualify for a refund if purchased in the last 90 days.
No. 4: J.C. Penney
J.C. Penney is another store with a liberal return policy and no specific timeline for returns and exchanges. On their website, they describe how you can get the full purchase price back in the original form of payment for all returns made with a receipt. Without a receipt, you’ll receive the lowest purchase price in the last 45 days in the form of a store credit.
Per their website, the return policy is slightly tighter on certain items including furniture, fine jewelry, small electronics, special-occasion dresses, and custom window coverings, among other items. However, most items in this category can be returned for full or partial credit with a receipt and within a 60-day window.
No. 3: Bed, Bath & Beyond
On its website, the housewares retailer says it offers “easy returns” with or without a receipt — and with no specific timeline in mind. Simply bring your return into the store — or ship it back to the retailer at their cost if purchased online — and you’ll be refunded the full purchase price in the original form of payment.
For returns without a receipt within 365 days, Bed Bath & Beyond will do their best to find your purchase in their point-of-sale system. If they can’t find it, you’ll still be refunded in the form of a store credit, although you may not get the full amount. Still, that’s a lot better than getting stuck with a duplicate coffeemaker.
No. 2: L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean is another store with a legendarily flexible return policy and a dedication to customer satisfaction through the entire shopping experience. The Maine-based outdoors outfitter doesn’t offer a specific timeline or cutoff date for returns with or without receipts on its website, and instead suggests bringing in your item so they can reimburse the original purchase price (with a receipt), help you with an exchange, or hook you up with an L.L. Bean gift card in the amount of your return.
While they’re willing to accept items without a receipt, that doesn’t include obviously used or soiled items, writes L.L. Bean. And to make an exchange without a receipt, you do need a valid ID. Other than that, their return policy is crystal clear and downright fair.
No. 1: Nordstrom
Nordstrom consistently ranks high on their return policy because, well, they don’t really have one. “We don’t actually have a return policy for purchases made at Nordstrom stores or at Nordstrom.com,” the website says. “We handle returns on a case-by-case basis with the ultimate objective of satisfying the customer.”
This absolute flexibility is a huge selling point for the retailer, who believes that, in dealing with customers fairly and reasonably, their customers are more likely to return the favor. When you shop at Nordstrom, you can rest assured you won’t run into any funny business if you should, heaven forbid, actually need to return at item.
When you’re shopping this holiday season, make sure you’re considering the big picture when you buy an item on sale. If you need to return it for any reason, you’ll want to make sure the store you’re dealing with has a reasonable policy in place.
You’ll also be better off if you keep all your holiday receipts (or all receipts, period) in one place. Further, checking store websites for details on returns before making a big purchase is always a good idea.
The more you spend on an item, the more money you have the potential to lose. Unfortunately, this lesson is one that is often learned the hard way.
Have you ever been stuck with an item you couldn’t return? Which store has the worst return policy in your opinion?