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'Return policies are more complex' this holiday season experts say: Here's what to look for in the fine print

"Basically, if you have to have a checklist before you make a return, you may not want to bother."

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Many stores loosen their return policies around the holidays. For example, Amazon expanded its 30-day return policy so most items shipped between October 1 and December 31 could be returned up until January 31, 2022.

Last year, stores were even more lax due to Covid-19 causing store closures, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World. However, this year some big box retailers have kept the amendments they made to their policies, while others have rolled them back. Last year, for example, Home Depot doubled its 90-day return policy. This year it's back at three months.

"Return policies are more complex this year," Dworsky says. He examined the fine print of return policies at a dozen stores, including Amazon, Walmart, and Target, and says the fine print "in Word Doc, comes out to about 75 pages."

Still, it's important that you know which stores are offering refunds, for how long, and what you'll need to get your money back. Here's what to look for when reading a store's return policy, according to experts.

How long a store allows you to make a return

This seems obvious, but seeing as Covid-19 has made stores change and then change back their policies, it would be good to double-check how long you have to return an item. "Some stores have very small return windows, so it's best to shop at stores that give you more than 7 to 14 days," says Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.com. This is especially true for items like clothing or books, which tend to have small return windows.

"The industry standard for things like clothing seems to be at least 30 days, so anything less than that and the store might not be worth shopping at if you think you may have to make a return," she says.

What the store requires you have to make a return

Check how many pieces of proof you'll need to provide in order to make a return. "If you need the physical original receipt, plus the original payment method, and an ID, then the return may be a hassle," Ramhold says.

Many stores can look up purchases via your payment method or a membership card, she says. So requiring you to jump through hoops makes you less able, and less likely, to go through with the return. "Basically, if you have to have a checklist before you make a return, you may not want to bother," she says.

If you need the physical original receipt, plus the original payment method, and an ID, then the return may be a hassle.
Julie Ramhold
consumer analyst at DealNews.com

Whether you get a full refund after a return

If a store doesn't offer refunds at all, that's a red flag, Ramhold says. Often times, she says, the exchange process can be more tedious that simply getting your money back.

"If a store only offers an exchange or store credit, even for normal returns, I'd say avoid the store at all costs," she says.

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