Maybe the feeling hits as soon as you walk away from the checkout, or perhaps it doesn’t come on until you’re at home, unloading all your purchases. Whenever it strikes, the symptoms are the same: a sinking feeling in your stomach mixed with a big dose of guilt. There’s no doubt about it – you have a bad case of buyer’s remorse. Thankfully, there’s an easy cure for the condition. You’ll just take advantage of the store’s return policy.
Not so fast. While retail return policies do protect shoppers from their ill-conceived impulse purchases and offer recourse if an item is not quite what the purchaser was expecting, they’re not created equal. Wildly different rules from store to store and confusing fine print can turn what should be a simple return into a big headache.
Why do some retailers make it difficult to return items? Because they lose a lot of money when shoppers change their minds. In 2015, people brought $260.5 billion worth of purchases back to stores, or 8% of all retail sales, according to the National Retail Federation. Nearly $16 billion worth of those returns are either fraudulent or attempts by consumers to abuse a store’s return policy.
To limit the damage done by returns, retailers have introduced all kinds of refund rules. You may need a receipt to get your money back or have to produce an ID. Some stores have different return windows for different types of products or offer a longer return period for customers who are part of a loyalty program. Many stores tweak their policies around the holidays.
Given the wide variation in return policies, it pays to be informed before you buy, especially for big-ticket items. Before you head to the mall on Black Friday (or any other day of the year), spend a few minutes reading up on a retailer’s return policy, lest you get stuck with an item you don’t really want.
Stores with the best return policies
You can usually tell how consumer friendly a store’s return policy is by its length. Short and sweet is a good sign, and usually indicates that the retailer is willing to accept returns in most situations. While some reasonable exclusions might apply, these stores are willing to go the extra mile to keep customers happy.
Technically, Nordstrom doesn’t even have a return policy. That might sound like a red flag, but what it really means is that store handles each return “on a case-by-case basis with the ultimate objective of making our customers happy.” Rumors that the high-end department store has even accepted snow tires (which it doesn’t sell) for return are likely apocryphal, but it is true that its approach to refunds is unusually generous.
The store doesn’t have a time limit on returns and receipts aren’t required. However, if you don’t have a receipt and the store doesn’t have a record of your purchase, the refund amount will be for whatever the item’s current selling price is. Special occasion dresses aren’t accepted for return if the tag has been removed, a policy put in place to stop “wardrobing,” or the sneaky habit of buying a fancy dress for a party and then returning it after the event is over.
Everyone’s favorite warehouse club also has one of the best return policies in the country. Costco has a no-questions-asked return policy on most items, even if you don’t have a receipt. TVs, computers, and other electronics and major appliances must be returned within 90 days, but even that limited return window is longer than it is at most other retailers selling electronics. Not satisfied with your Costco membership? The store will also refund the membership fee at any time if you’re not happy.
3. L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean is so confident in its products that it offers a “100% satisfaction guarantee” and allows customers to “return anything purchased from us at any time” if it doesn’t meet their expectations. If you have a receipt, you’ll get the full purchase price refunded to you. Customers returning items without a receipt are offered an exchange or merchandise credit. Though there are a handful of restrictions on returns, they’re pretty sensible. You can’t return stuff you didn’t buy at L.L. Bean – no scouring thrift stores and garage sales in an attempt to make a quick buck – and items can’t be dirty, damaged due to a fire or flood, or missing a label.
Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia offers an “ironclad guarantee” on its products. Customers can bring an item back to the store at any time for a refund, replacement, or repair. If the item is new and unworn, getting a refund or replacement shouldn’t be a hassle. If you have a well-worn jacket with a broken zipper or pants with a hole in them, you may not get your money back, but the company will repair your item for a small fee as part of its commitment to environmental responsibility. And anecdotal customer stories suggest the company is quite flexible with returns and exchanges. Several users on this Reddit thread said they’d been able to exchange damaged items years after they were originally purchased.
Kohl’s promises customers hassle-free returns. There’s no time limit on returns, but you’ll need a receipt or a Kohl’s account to get the full amount back. Otherwise, you’ll receive a merchandise credit for the item’s lowest selling price or be offered an even exchange. If you earned Kohl’s cash on your original purchase, you may have to forfeit the bonus or settle for a smaller return. Electronics need to be returned within 30 days of when they were purchased.
Big-box retailers tend to have stricter return policies than more specialized stores. While Target’s return and refund rules aren’t quite as flexible as they are at some stores, they are fairly reasonable. Most new and unopened items can be returned within 90 days of purchase. You can even return opened makeup and beauty products if you decide they don’t work for you. And you have a full year to return Target’s store-brand products, including those by Up & Up, Mossimo, and Threshold. If you don’t have your receipt, the store can usually look up the purchase and refund you the full purchase price if you paid with a credit card. If you have a Target RedCard, you get an extra 30 days for returns.
The worst store return policies
Shoppers who second-guess their decisions will have a harder time getting their money back at certain stores, especially those selling electronics. At the following retailers, you’ll encounter shorter return windows and more stringent rules about taking back unwanted merchandise.
1. Kmart and Sears
Hang on to your receipt if you buy anything at Kmart. The retailer won’t accept returns without that little slip of paper, unlike other big-box stores that will look up your purchase using your credit card. Plus, you only have 30 days after purchasing something to return it. Furniture and mattresses must be returned within 7 days. During the holidays, the refund rules are relaxed slightly. You have until January 31, 2017, to return most items bought between November 1 and December 24, 2016.
Sears, which is owned by the same company that owns Kmart, has a similar return policy. Generally, you have 30 days for a return and must have your receipt. The same extended holiday return window also applies. Sears also charges a 15% restocking fee if electronics and certain other items aren’t returned in their original packaging.
2. Best Buy
Best Buy shoppers have a measly 15 days to return an item if they change their mind. If you’re a Best Buy Elite or Elite Plus member, you get 30 or 45 days to return. Cell phones can only be returned within two weeks of purchase. If you have a Best Buy wedding registry, you get 60 days to take back gifts you don’t want. The strict return policy is loosened up a bit around the holidays. This year, you have until January 15, 2017 to return anything purchased between October 30 and December 31, 2016.
3. Forever 21
Fast-fashion retailer Forever 21 sells cheap clothes that may already be out of style by the time you get them home. So, it’s hardly surprising that they are not eager to take back yesterday’s trendy fashions. The Forever 21 website tells shoppers to contact individual stores for return information, though sources indicate you have just 21 days to return that faux-fur mini backpack or embellished bomber jacket. If you do bring your regrettable purchase back to the store, you’ll only get store credit or be offered an exchange.
4. Barnes & Noble
If you decide you’re not actually going to read the latest bestseller you picked up at Barnes & Noble, you better head back to the bookstore, pronto. You have only 14 days to return items purchased in store or online, and you’ll need a receipt or packing slip to do so. If you have a gift receipt, you have 60 days for a return, and anything purchased between November 14 and December 31, 2016, can be returned until January 31, 2017.
If you’re not totally convinced you’re going to want to keep your GameStop purchase, don’t open the packaging and don’t throw away your receipt. The store won’t take back any item that’s been removed from its plastic wrap (most other retailers have similar rules for video games and DVDs) and requires a receipt for all returns. You have 30 days to return most purchases, but tablets must be returned within 14 days if you want a refund. You can only get a full refund on pre-owned merchandise within 7 days of purchase.
6. Apple Store
You have only 14 days to return your Macbook or iPad to the Apple Store if you decide you don’t want it, and you’ll need to make sure you have any cords, adapters, or documentation that came with the original purchase. There is an extended holiday return window, but it’s still pretty short. Items purchased between November 10 and December 25, 2016, can be returned until January 8, 2017. Compared to the Microsoft Store, where you have 30 days to return and may even be able get a refund for downloadable software, it’s a pretty strict policy.