Returning unwanted gifts — what are your rights (and how to avoid hurting feelings)

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Let’s face it: no one likes dealing with unwanted gift returns, especially right after Christmas when you’ve been used to slouching around in your PJs all day. 

Not only could it require spending your time off lining up at the return desk of a store in the middle of the post-Christmas sales, but it might also involve an awkward conversation with whoever gifted it to you. 

If they didn’t provide a receipt in the box, you might have to try to find an excuse (other than the truth: i.e. you hate it) as to why you need it. 

On top of that, some retailers have adjusted their return policies over the last year, with many shops shortening the extended windows previously offered for holiday returns. And, while surprising, some stores are even advising customers to keep their unsatisfactory online orders rather than return them. However, not all retailers are adopting this approach during the festive season. This is what can make things consuming. Since returning an item has become something of a fine art — it pays to be in the know.

To ensure the returns you make are as smooth and pain-free as possible, it’s worth knowing your rights and being informed about how retailers’ holiday return policies differ. Doing so might just help you avoid any common pitfalls so you’re not stuck with an unwanted gift.

With that, here’s a guide to returning unwanted gifts this holiday season - including what your rights are and how to avoid hurting the feelings of friends, families and loved ones.

What are your rights?

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In the United States, consumer rights regarding returning an item at a store are generally determined by the store's own return policy. 

Unlike in some countries in Europe, there are no federal laws that require a merchant to refund money, exchange a product, or provide a credit for a return unless the merchandise is defective or was misrepresented. However, most retailers do offer return policies as part of their customer service, so it’s just a matter of knowing what these are before you attempt to return any unwanted gifts.

How to return holiday gifts

Each store has its unique return policy, but generally, the process for returning holiday gifts follows a similar pattern. In an ideal world, the purchase — if made in the store — will involve simply returning the item to the customer service desk with a receipt or gift receipt for a straightforward transaction. Generally, items can be returned for a refund, store credit or exchanged for a different size or color. Although you might also need to present photo ID, so be prepared for that, too.

For items purchased online, things aren’t quite as simple (but at least they don’t involve leaving the house). For this, you’ll generally need to contact the retailer with the order number and follow their specific return instructions, which typically include mailing the item back. While some retailers may cover return shipping costs, others might require you to bear the expense. As with in-store returns, items can usually be returned for a refund or store credit - although exchanges might entail returning the original item for a refund and simply buying the new thing you’d like instead. 

The good news is that retailers are becoming flexible when it comes to their return options. For instance, Walmart now provides curbside returns and for Walmart+ customers who pay an InHome fee, doorstep pickup of returns is available. Amazon has also eased the process, allowing returns at Kohl’s stores, eliminating the need for packing and shipping.

The good news is that retailers are becoming flexible when it comes to their return options.

However, such processes aren’t always as straightforward as they seem. It’s, therefore, crucial to be in the know when it comes to the fine print of a store’s return policy before attempting a return - especially a holiday gift, as some stores have different policies over the holiday period compared to the rest of the year (but more on that later).

Also be aware that the return policy of a store might not apply to third-party sellers on the platform, so that might require a bit of a gander into their specific return policies.

Key aspects to know before initiating a return include the return deadline, the method and location of the return, required proof of purchase, any potential costs and whether the item is eligible for return.

Holiday return complications

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Retailers often have extended holiday return windows for purchases made during specific periods, although these extended periods and their deadlines can often vary between retailers, so it's worth checking the specific holiday return policies of the retailer you’re looking to return an item to first. 

Nevertheless, here are some typical rules and guidelines for returning items over the holiday period, regardless of specific store policies.

How long do you have to return holiday items?

Many retailers extend their return windows during the holiday season. For example, Walmart’s 2023 holiday return policy allows for returns of items purchased as early as October 1 to be made until January 31, 2024. This pattern of extended return windows is common among major retailers.

However, not all items may be eligible for these extended returns. Usually, the return window ranges from 14 to 30 days post-purchase, with some retailers offering up to a year. Electronics and mobile phones often have shorter return windows, typically around two weeks.

Do you need a receipt to make a return?

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Having a receipt, whether standard or as a gift receipt, simplifies the return process. Without it, your options may be limited to store credit or an exchange. Some retailers can trace purchases using the payment card details or the order number for online purchases. 

However, having the receipt is the easiest route to a refund and will probably save you some frustration

Items you (generally) can't return

Each store’s policy will differ slightly, but generally, used items, especially if they show clear signs of use, are not returnable unless defective. 

Opening the box or removing tags from a product might also render it unreturnable. Retailers typically refuse used items and may impose restocking fees on open-box products. So it’s always worth keeping the item in its original condition, if possible.

Items such as gift cards, custom or personalized products, seasonal goods, perishable items, and final sale merchandise are usually non-returnable, too. 

As with all returns, always check the store’s individual return policy before making the effort to go there to return something. On the other hand, if you’re in the area anyway — regardless of your certainty that they won’t honor your return, it’s worth giving it a try. You never know, you might stumble upon a super lenient sales rep!

Cost of returning items

While returning items to a store doesn’t usually cost you anything (apart from the gas or transport to get there) not all retailers offer free returns. For many online stores, original shipping charges are typically non-refundable unless the retailer was at fault. On top of that, shipping costs to send the item back are usually deducted from your refund.

In some (rare) instances, restocking fees may apply to certain products, particularly high-end electronics and open-box items. These fees are often about 15% of the item’s purchase price, but this can vary, so it's important to check the specific terms.

As Matt Hopkins, Head of Global Retail at Board International, says: “More retailers will feel pressured to shift to paid returns, but they don't have to. 

“For every $1 billion in sales, the average retailer incurs $165 million in returns. So it’s no surprise that retailers are taking a hard look at financial planning and deciding they just can’t take the hit of free returns any longer — knowingly upsetting a consumer base also impacted by a tight economy who don’t want to bear the financial burden either.”

And finally, how to avoid hurting feelings

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So what if you need a receipt for a gift that someone bought for you at Christmas to exchange it for something you actually like or prefer?

First thing first, don’t feel guilty about it. Seek solace in the fact that - according to the National Retail Federation— holiday gift returns are exceptionally popular, returned at a higher rate than regular purchases, with up to a 35% return rate for eCommerce shops compared to a regular return rate of 16%. This represents $158 billion worth of goods,

In fact, returns are so common after the festive period that UPS has informally named a date in January “National Returns Day”, which sees shoppers return around 1.3 million packages. 

So what’s the best way to let a family, friend or loved one know you’d like to return the item?

Firstly, know that returning a gift does not negate the spirit of the gift, secondly - according to etiquette expert Diane Gottsman — honesty is always the best policy.

Gottsman gives an example of what you could say if someone gives you a two-piece bathing suit that you would never wear.

“Say, ‘I’m looking forward to our family vacation to the beach, but I’m really not a bikini girl. Would you mind if I exchanged it for something else I could use or wear on our trip?’” she suggested.

But if you know that expressing any displeasure with the gift will cause more drama than it’s worth, keep it and say nothing. Use it when your mother-in-law visits.

“It really depends on the relationship you have with [the person], and her proximity to you on a daily basis,” said Gottsman.

Something to be mindful of, however, is to never regift it or give it away if there is any chance that the giver can find out. You can always gently nudge them in the right direction on future gifts with subtle hints, instead.

“You can either drop subtle hints or outright tell them what is on your wishlist,” added Gottsman.

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Lee Bell

Lee Bell is a freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in technology, health and fitness and how the latest innovations are shaking up the lifestyle space. From national newspapers to specialist-interest magazines and digital titles, Lee has written for some of the world’s most respected publications during his 12-plus years as a journalist.