Many Happier Returns

Millions of Americans are going to flock to stores to give Santa back items they don't want.

And while the process can sometimes be stressful, there are ways to make them go more smoothly, according to AOL Consumer Adviser Regina Lewis.

On The Early Show Friday, she shared suggestions with substitute co-anchor Tracy Smith.

Lewis says a National Rational Federation survey finds some retailers' return policies will be more lenient this year, but don't expect to see anything new in writing: Anytime retailers loosen return rules, they open themselves up to return fraud. So, some may give a little more wiggle room this year if you don't have a receipt or the tags are missing from an item, but don't expect any major changes. And the much-talked-about blowout deals -- 60 and 70 percent discounts -- may be FINAL SALE exceptions to standard store policies.

Tip #1: Make Returns Now

You can reasonably expect to receive a store credit for the price the item is currently being sold at or was last sold at. The price of not having a receipt is not locking in the purchase price. Remember: Prices go down, not up, post-holiday. Even if you do have a receipt, the clock may have run out, because it starts when the purchase is made. So, if the gift was bought early, sat in closet and then under the tree, the meter was running the whole time. There are notable exceptions. Major department stores, such as Macy's and Bloomingdale's, sticker the tag of every -- every -- item at time of purchase. It's mandatory. From that point on, the item and corresponding sticker code are logged in their system at the selling price. If the tags are on when you return something, they'll scan the sticker and you'll get credit or a store credit for the exact amount. Pretty sophisticated. Return times vary significantly, and sometimes by item. Watch for 14, 30, 60 and 90-day windows. Electronics are often shorter: seven-to-fourteen days in many cases. Some retailers offer "extended holiday returns" to account for the fact that you may have started your holiday shopping in mid-November, but didn't give the gifts until Christmastime.

Tip #2: Beware of Restocking Fees

If it's something you think you may want to return, DO NOT OPEN THE BOX, particularly when it comes to electronics, or you're setting yourself up to pay "restocking fees." Don't even pull the cellophane off the box. At major electronics retailers, such as Best Buy, restocking fees are 15 percent on items such as laptops, GPS units and digital cameras, and as high as 25 percent for special order products, including appliances. At most any store, once you've opened a CD, DVD or video game, it's not returnable unless it's defective. We spoke with a "lead" customer service agent at Best Buy. He said each package on the floor appears at it was packaged by the manufacturer (Sony, HP, etc.). Best Buy doesn't have any one particular additional "seal" it puts on it. The tape on the product usually is logoed with the brand (again, Sony, HP, Kodak, etc.). Basically, if you taper with the original packaging in any way, it's considered opened. Usually, that means you've pulled the "tape" off or cut the tape -- let alone, when you started rifling through the box! Or if a product is packaged in clear cellophane and you take that wrapping off -- same thing -- you've opened it. Once they have a return of an open box item, they have to: 1) Have a technician inspect the box to make sure everything is in it and that the product works to original manufacturer specifications; and 2) They can no longer sell it as NEW -- once it passes their technical inspection, it goes on the floor as an OPEN BOX ITEM, which they normally have to mark down 15 - 25 percent before it will sell. Three items that will always incur a restocking fee (at Best Buy), if opened, are: computers, digital cameras/camcorders and radar detectors.

Tip #3: Return Online & Catalog Orders In-Store

This is a competitive advantage for many of the e-tailers that have "brick and mortar" space -- Barnes & Noble, Kohl's, etc. Often, you can return items purchased online or via catalog to the corresponding store and you won't have to pay for shipping costs. There are exceptions, including items marked "catalog" and "Internet-only." If you do need to mail it back, use the "smart label" on the paperwork in the box, or go to the store Web site to get the specifics and print out a return shipping label. In some cases, the label provides for pre-paid shipping, which makes it far more convenient, because you don't have to worry about postage. Having said that, pre-paid doesn't equal cost-free. They deduct the cost of the return shipping from the total amount they're crediting your card with. So, that $50 sweater will go back on your VISA as $50, minus $6.50. If you don't have a physical receipt from the box the product shipped in, on most sites, you can look up the product/order and arrange for a return if you have the order number. Nearly all e-tailers send out confirmation e-mails when a product is ordered online. The order number is in that e-mail -- you'd likely have to get it from the gift-giver. From there, you go back to the site, go to its "returns" area, punch in the order number, and follow the steps. In the process, some sites, such as, will also generate a "return authorization number" that you must enclose with your return package.

TIP #4: Sell Gifts Online

eBay and Amazon are the No. 1 solutions here! If you haven't played your return cards 100 percent correctly, the math may make more sense. You could get more bang from your buck by selling, as opposed to returning or exchanging. First, pretend you're shopping for that gift. Searching for it will give you a feel for the going rate. Right now, demand is high for hot gifts like Kindle and Wii Fit. We just looked, and they're going for more than their original retail price. We see it every year. Not everyone gets everything they want, so right about now, they start shopping for themselves. It's a good time to play into that demand curve. Some of the same items are spiking in price now (Wii Fit, Amazon Kindle). If someone gives you a Wii Fit, maybe you unload it and make a few extra bucks the day after Christmas. Just how much? We checked on going rates of three of the season's most sought-after (and sold out on gifts: Kindle: Retails for $359. New units from $599 on eBay, "like new" from $485 on Amazon; used and/or refurbished models less expensive. Nintendo's Wii: Retails for $249. New units from $310 on eBay and $365 on Amazon. Wii Fit: Retails for $90. New from $145 on eBay and $170 on Amazon.

Tip #5: Swap, or Sell Gift Cards

Every year, $8 billion dollars in gift cards go unredeemed. One of the biggest causes is people hanging onto them and forgetting to use them. In the old days, could use a $50 gift certificate to pick up a $5 pair of socks and pocket the change. Those days are over, but you can still get your hands on cash by cashing them in. If you go to, they'll give you an instant quote, and you'll get a check within the week. Expect to get about 65 percent of face value. So, a $100 gift certificate would get you $65. There's a $1.99 transaction fee. If you get a gift card you know you won't use, there are sites like where you can also swap them with someone for one your want. or you can sell it for say 70% of its value and pocket the cash.

Tip #6: Beware of the Blacklist

There are outside third-party tracking services that track consumer return habits. You can be labeled a "serial returner" and, if you read the fine-print, stores reserve the right to turn your return down. So, try not to make a sport out of this! Some retailers limit how many items you can return in a given time period. They're trying to guard against fraudulent returns, but if you're a normal consumer, you shouldn't worry about being blacklisted. No retailer wants to turn away a customer (and they'll tell you, some of the best customers are the most frequent returners!)
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