Buying gifts is just one part of the holiday shopping season. It's likely that sometime in the next few months, you'll find that the gadget you received doesn't work the way you hoped it would, or that the shirt you got doesn't fit. You (or the person who got you the gift) will need to return the product in hopes of getting a refund or a replacement.
As you know, returning items is never fun. And returning items online can be even less appealing.
To give you a sense of which major retailer offers the best return policy, we've outlined the rules of Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and Target. Based on our research, you might be better off with Walmart or Target if you want the most time to return products and the most flexibility.
Retailer Return Policies Compared
Item cannot be damaged or perishable.
Item cannot be damaged, and receipt is requested.
Receipt is required, and item should not be opened or damaged.
Item must be returned in the original manufacturer's packaging.
Amazon requires most third-party sellers to follow its own return policy.
The vast majority of products fall into the standard return policy, which is not the case with competitors.
Target-branded products come with a one-year return policy, easily topping its standard 90 days.
A 90-day policy on nearly all goods, including grocery items that are nonperishable. The most flexible of the bunch.
* 30 days for My Best Buy Elite members, 45 days for Elite Plus members
In general, Amazon offers 30-day returns on items it sells directly.
Third-party sellers that offer products through the site also typically offer 30-day returns. However, there are some cases where that policy might not apply, which is why Amazon says all consumers should look at a seller's profile page to see its specific returns and refund policies.
Regardless of the third-party seller's policy, Amazon requires that all sellers offer either a return address within the U.S., a prepaid return label or a full refund without requiring products to be returned.
When products are fulfilled or manufactured by Amazon, they're automatically governed by the company's own return and refund policies. As noted, the 30-day full-price return is generally the accepted rule.
However, there are some exceptions.
First, customers who purchase a product from Amazon's Mama Bear and Happy Belly brands can get a refund up to one year after the purchase. Customers who buy an Amazon device, including its Kindle e-reader or Echo smart-home product, can get a full refund within 30 days as long as the product is shipped back to the company in new condition.
On the automotive side, Amazon will offer refunds on products in accordance with the manufacturer's warranty. Baby items can be returned within 90 days of receipt, but those who are hoping to return grocery items sold through AmazonFresh are out of luck.
On the tech side, Amazon's refund policy is a bit of a mixed bag. If a product is returned in new condition in an unopened box, for instance, Amazon offers a full refund. Any computer or tablet that is missing a part or is in an "unsellable condition" might fetch a higher restocking fee.
One other tidbit from Amazon: Any products bought from a wedding registry can be returned within 180 days of delivery.
Best Buy offers a tiered return policy. Every customer who buys a product from one of its stores or online will get a standard 15-day return option. Customers who are also My Best Buy Elite members can bump their return time to 30 days, and those who are My Best Buy Elite Plus members can take advantage of a 45-day return policy.
To qualify for My Best Buy Elite status, customers must spend at least $1,500 at the retail store per year and sign up for a free My Best Buy rewards card. Those who are part of the My Best Buy Elite Plus class spend at least $3,500 per year. In addition to return perks, Elite and Elite Plus members get improved customer service, the ability to earn more points with each purchase, and access to special sales and offers.
Best Buy noted that the vast majority of its products come with the aforementioned 15-day return policy. However, the company added that postpaid cellphones require a 14-day return, regardless of whether customers are My Best Buy Elite users. Similarly, wedding registry items carry a 60-day return for all customers.
Like Walmart, Best Buy offers customers the option to return products through its retail store locations or via mail. The company offers a free return label for customers to quickly send back items to Best Buy.
Best Buy has few limitations on its return policy. For instance, the company will take back apparel only if it hasn't been worn or laundered and still has its original tags. And like other retailers, Best Buy won't accept final-sale items.
Beyond that, however, Best Buy's policy is straightforward and applies to just about every item it sells in its stores. However, its 15-day return period is not as long as other retailers'.
Walmart's return-and-exchange policy comes with one very big difference from Amazon's: Because Walmart operates brick-and-mortar locations, customers who buy products on Walmart.com can either mail them in or return them in-store. Amazon requests that buyers return goods via mail.
As with Amazon's return policy, Walmart's return policy varies greatly depending on the product customers buy. However, in most cases, the retail giant offers customers a 90-day return on a slew of products, ranging from electronics to jewelry.
Many items purchased at Walmart can be returned within 90 days. However, there are some exceptions: Computers, digital cameras, tablets and drones, among other devices, must be returned within 15 days of receipt. Postpaid cellphones must be returned within 14 days of receipt, but customers who buy prepaid smartphones can return them within 15 days.
Although televisions are big-ticket items, they can be returned within 90 days.
Walmart's return policy is one of the simplest. The vast majority of the products it sells, other than electronics, can be returned within 90 days. In most cases, customers will get a full refund.
Even on the grocery side, Walmart offers a 90-day return on nonperishable items.
If you want to return products through a Walmart store, the company typically requires a receipt.
Target, another major brick-and-mortar retailer, offers a return policy similar to Walmart's, allowing customers to return products within 90 days of purchase. Target will offer a full refund or exchange on most products, but the company says it reserves the right to deny refunds on items that have been opened or damaged, or those that are returned without a receipt.
That said, there are some considerations to keep in mind. For one, any Target-owned-brand item can be returned or exchanged within one year of purchase. In addition, Target will not take returns on any music, movies, video games or software that have been opened. The same is true for open airbeds and open collectibles, like a special-edition Barbie.
Target's return policy for electronics differs from the 90-day period allowed for most other items. Any electronic or entertainment product can be returned only within a 30-day period. As with the other companies' return policies, any postpaid smartphone must be returned within 14 days.
Note that if you decide to bring back a product you got on a Buy One Get One promotion, you'll get a refund only on the lowest-priced item.
As with Walmart's and Best Buy's return policies, Target's return policy allows for customers to return their products online or in-store. Target also has the right to refuse products before it offers a refund, so it's critical that you follow the store's policies to ensure you get your refund.
So, which policy is best?
Now that we've detailed the companies' return policies, you might be wondering which one is best.
It's difficult to say which return policy is best, because the experience can differ between in-store returns and online returns. And many customers will judge these policies based on the items they bought and their personal preferences: For instance, do you prefer a longer period of time to return your products, or do you care more about the experience?
In general, though, return policies are often judged by the amount of time people have to return products, how onerous the policies are and whether there is some leeway in regulations. Based on all of those metrics, companies such as Walmart and Target might offer the best experience.
Both Walmart and Target offer the longest period of time for customers to return their products. Better yet, they have both online and brick-and-mortar locations, making it easier to find a place to return unwanted goods. Add that to the freebie shipping deals offered by the likes of Amazon, and you might find more value in the big retailers that give you more time to figure out if the product you bought is really all that great.
Your best bet is to be sure to examine these policies in detail before choosing where to get a product you might end up returning at some point.