Shoppers advised to learn return policies

| Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011

While many stores have relaxed their returns policies, anyone who tries to take back an unwanted gadget or scratchy sweater they got as a gift should be ready for what they may face at the customer service counter, experts say.

Merchants trying to make the most of the holiday shopping season after a couple of tough years made exchanges and returns easier, said Audrey Guskey, a Duquesne University marketing professor.

"Retailers were very concerned. They didn't know what the holiday season was going to be like, and how sales were going to be," she said.

"Over the last two to four years there were some really stringent policies, and customers complained. If you bought an electronics item sometimes, even if you didn't open it, there was a 15 percent restocking fee. Sometimes returns weren't allowed at all on opened products."

Best Buy, for example, used to charge 15 percent for returning opened items such as cameras and computers, but in mid-December it dropped the restocking fees on everything except special orders. Sears and Kmart still charge 15 percent on merchandise if the package is opened, and on electronics and some other items.

The key is to know each store's policies in advance.

Mary Peluso of Ross learned this after her husband used gift cards to get her a netbook computer for Christmas in a Toys R Us store.

She said Jerry Peluso bought $400 worth of Toys R Us gift cards at a Giant Eagle store, to get the supermarket chain's discount on gasoline. He bought their son a mini-dirt bike with part of the amount, and picked up a netbook like the ones his wife had been eyeing.

But Mary Peluso wanted a small computer with the Windows operating system that would run Microsoft Office, and this one fell short.

She said she tried to return it to the store with the receipt on Monday, and was frustrated to learn she could only get credit in the form of a card to use with the toy retailer, not cash. The netbook cost $180 and her husband bought a warranty, she said.

Because Toys R Us has nothing else she'd like, "I can take it back and get the store credit, and then I don't get a present" or keep an item she's unhappy with.

Toys R Us spokeswoman Jennifer Albano said policy generally allows for customers to get refunds in the tender they used to make the purchase. If a gift card was used, a merchandise credit card is given out when a return is made.

Unopened electronics items can be returned within 45 days with a receipt, Toys R Us policy states.

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts said the O'Hara-based chain sells third-party retailers' cards at supermarkets, but has no role in policies linked to use of the cards.

Regarding returns, "We would recommend that consumers ask what the return policy is in advance, to make sure to save the receipt and understand the time frame" for taking something back, said Mary Loftus vice president of agency services for South Side-based Advantage Credit Counseling.

No federal or state laws control merchandise returns, unless the item is defective, she said. Consumers should find out whether or not they can get cash, and if not, consider whether the retailer has other products of interest.

Sometimes, asking to see a manager can lead to an alternate arrangement, Guskey said. But for the most part, "a policy is a policy, especially with electronics or something you have opened."

Stringent return policies are designed to combat consumer fraud, such as returning stolen or used items or handing over counterfeit receipts. Fraud was estimated grow to $3.7 billion for the just-ended holiday season from $2.7 billion in 2009, according to a National Retail Federation study.

Still, some stores are moving to video surveillance and other means to head off the problem transactions, experts said.

As to restocking fees, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, called in December for a crackdown on fees for online purchases and demanded that retailers provide full disclosures on restocking fees before a sale is made.

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