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Returning holiday gifts? Keep these tips in mind

Why returning gifts could be harder this year
Why returning unwanted gifts could be harder this year 03:07

Unsure about that gift you got over Christmas? You'd better make up your mind fast. Holiday returns are becoming more challenging this year, as many retailers pull back after years of encouraging holiday spending.

"They're shrinking the returns window, and they're increasingly making you pay to ship it back," Charisse Jones, national business correspondent at USA Today, told CBS Mornings.

Here's what's changing, and what you can do if you need to exchange or return a Christmas dud.

Decide fast

If you think you might want to return something, move fast. Previously generous return windows are shrinking. About 60% of retailers are changing their return policies this year, goTRG, a return management provider, told CBS MoneyWatch previously. Often that means shortening the "insanely long" return window that became commonplace during the pandemic, company CEO Sender Shamiss said.

That means rather than sticking a so-so gift in a closet for weeks or months, decide immediately to keep it or toss it.

"Don't sit on that gift," counseled Jones. "If you're not sure you want it, look at that returns policy, because you might miss that window to get an exchange or refund."

For instance, Amazon allows most items bought from October 11 through December 25 to be returned through the end of January — shrinking the window for returns from the previous year.

Other retailers are moving to a shorter timeframe to return items. A 30-day window is now typical, CNBC reported.

Prepare to pay a fee

Many retailers are also charging customers for returns that used to be free.  

Retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch, Anthropologie, DSW, TJMaxx, Old Navy, J Crew, JC Penney and Zara charge a restocking fee  for at least some items. Most fees are between $4 and $8, although some are higher.

While the fee covers some costs associated with returns, experts say the real way they save retailers money is by discouraging returns.  "They're really there to deter the consumer from returning," Spencer Kieboom, CEO of return management company Pollen Returns, told CNBC recently

Other retailers won't charge an explicit fee but will ask the shopper to mail back the item — at their own expense.

Those looking to return holiday gifts could get hit with new fees 02:26

That's because returns aren't cheap for retailers who have to process them.

On average, a returned item costs the retailer $15 to restock, Jones said. The store has to put the item back into salable condition, "get the deodorant mark off the shirt, the scuff mark off the shoe, put it back on the sales floor," she said. A large fraction of returned items will need to be heavily discounted because, by the time it's been sent back and put on the floor, it's out of season or out of style, she noted.

And a large fraction of returned items can't be resold at all and will need to be offloaded to discount stores or liquidators.

Last year, returns cost sellers $761 billion in lost sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

Go to the physical store

Rather than mailing your unwanted gift, go to the retail store when you can. In many cases, that will save you from paying the restocking fee sellers charge for mail returns.

It can also mean you get your money back more quickly, by processing the return in-store, rather than sending it to a faraway processing center.

Research suggests that in-store returns may be slightly better for the planet, too. Online returns result in 14% more waste than the in-store kind, according to data from return platform Optoro.

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