If there’s even a slight chance you might return an item, don’t pay for it in cash. “Use a credit or debit card. It creates an electronic record of a payment, and it may make it possible to track your purchase if you lose the receipt,” says Omar Jackson, a department manager for Lowe’s in Garden City, New York. For e-commerce payments, PayPal offers similar protection, according to Constance White, style director for eBay. Some retailers can also track purchases with various computerized customer-profile systems by using a customer’s name and address or scanning tickets on the merchandise.
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This is particularly good advice after Christmas, when stores are “more likely to be lenient with their return policies to accommodate shoppers returning holiday gifts,” says Joseph LaRocca, vice president of the National Retail Federation (NRF). Sure, there are crowds―the week following the holiday is one of the busiest of the retail year―but many shops still have extended hours and extra help. You’ll also get the best selection of alternative merchandise if you want to exchange a gift.
No matter the time of year, it’s important to return an item promptly; items returned long after their purchase date are less likely to be worth their original price. (If something you bought for $80 is on sale for $20 and you don’t have the receipt or any other proof of purchase, you can usually kiss that $60 difference good-bye.) While some stores have set-in-stone deadlines for accepting returns or exchanges, you may be able to argue for a full refund if the item is defective or poses a safety concern, no matter when you make the return. This is more likely to happen at larger chain or department stores, though these stores may still send you back to the manufacturer.
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Choose the Right Time
Your best bet is to make a return before noon, when the stores―and the sales staffs―are least busy, says Pamela Macklin, a personal shopper with more than 15 years of experience at Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. If the morning isn’t an option, try midafternoon, after the lunch rush and before the after-work frenzy. On a weekend, choose Sunday, which draws smaller crowds than Saturday.
Also, “never make a return when you don’t have time,” says Jacky Adams, general manager of Smythson, a luxury leather goods and stationery retailer in New York City, “and don’t rush the salesperson.” She may be less willing to make an exception for a complicated return transaction (no receipt, missing tags, a faulty product, an expired return-by date) if she feels rushed or pressured.
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Bring All Your Paperwork
The more the better. “Shoppers should keep receipts and tags until the merchandise has been worn or used at least twice,” says Macklin. (If you have to remove tags to try on something, don’t toss them.) From a merchant’s perspective, “the receipt is golden,” says Sean Thurston, general manager of Staples in College Point, New York. “We have more flexibility if you have a receipt.” If you misplace it, bring the statement from the credit card you used; the store may be able to reference that. For big-ticket items, like electronics and large appliances, the NRF advises keeping the receipt for the full life of the warranty. When making catalog returns, record tracking numbers and keep copies of shipping forms so you have evidence if an item is lost in the mail.
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Find Out the (Real) Return Policy
When returning a store-bought item, always ask if there are options beyond the written rules. Can you get a store credit or an exchange if it’s too late to get a refund or you don’t have a receipt? Will the store replace a defective item even after the return deadline?
With online returns, read the policy carefully. You may have received free shipping when you ordered, but you might have to pay to return the item. If you paid for shipping but are returning to the merchant’s brick-and-mortar store, you may not be reimbursed for the original shipping charges. If that happens, call your credit-card company and explain the situation. It may be willing to reimburse you.
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Speak with a Manager
If a store doesn’t have a customer-service department and you aren’t getting what you want from the staff, “a manager may have the authority to override the return policy,” says Kathryn Finney, founder of Thebudget fashionista.com, a blog that offers fashion advice and budget tips. If you know you have a questionable return, try calling the department manager in advance and explaining the situation, suggests Macklin. Fostering a relationship with the manager may lead her to make an exception. If things aren’t going your way in person, never threaten to boycott the store. Your comments may make other customers question their purchases, “so the manager will want you to leave,” says Thurston.
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Always Be Honest
When people give exaggerated excuses for a return, retailers respond by quoting store policy, says Thurston: “We’ve heard these stories before. Just tell the truth―you probably haven’t had time to bring the item back.”