Aunt Mabel outdid herself this year. You're now the proud owner of a chartreuse tracksuit -- and it's even got kittens on it!
Finding a tactful way to ask if she still has the receipt is only half the battle this holiday season. Gift return policies and exchange rules are becoming more labyrinthine every year, and if you don't follow retailers' rules to the letter, you're not going to get your full refund -- or, in some cases, any refund at all.
To avoid the return runaround, check your store's seasonal return rules before heading to the mall. Watch out for:
- Restocking fees (particularly on electronics purchases): Some big-box retailers charge 15% of an item's purchase price to take back unwanted doodads, and up to 25% if it was a special order. In some instances, how much you'll pay may be at the discretion of the manager, but it can be as high as 15% to 20%.
- "Open box" fees are often charged if you've handled the merchandise. At Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) , Circuit City (Nasdaq: CC ) , and Target (NYSE: TGT ) , prepare to pay 15% of the item's value just to peek inside the box. In other words, it'll cost you $35 to return the $230 digital camera you bought your technophobe uncle if he happens to break the factory seal.
- Tighter return deadlines are enforced for holiday purchases. Many stores give you just 14 days to return an item for its original price. Don't dillydally.
- Partial refunds are a standard, particularly if you don't have a receipt. So don't be surprised if a credit or a refund is issued for only an item's post-holiday sale price. Also, note that most stores will not take back opened CDs, DVDs, software, or books -- even with a receipt. The best you can hope for from most major retailers is an exchange on damaged items or a 50% refund of an open item's price.
- Getting blacklisted is bad news for frequent returners and has become more common as tracking returns gets more sophisticated. You may be limited to a certain number of returns and exchanges within a designated period of time.
What's your recourse if you get the runaround? If you're stuck with a dud gift, you do have options.
You don't need to set up shop on the front porch to hawk those unwanted earmuffs and kitchen gadgets. Try your hand at copywriting and keyword-picking at sites like eBay, Amazon's Marketplace, and Half.com (owned by eBay). If you don't want to give these folks a cut for providing a selling platform, head to Craigslist.org. This online version of the local Town Crier offers free listings and person-to-person transactions. For those who prefer not to deal directly with the bargain-clicking public, take your choice items (brand names and designer labels, in particular) to a local consignment store. They usually take a 50% to 60% cut of the final selling price. Still, getting $25 for that musical toilet seat is better than letting it take up precious closet space.
Several websites enable holders of unwanted gift cards to sell or trade them. Listing is usually free, but you'll pay a fee if your card sells (anywhere from $1 to a percentage of the gift card's face value). Check out swapagift.com, CertificateSwap.com, and Cardavenue.com. CDs, DVDs, and video games are swappable at zunafish.com for a $1 fee (plus shipping costs).
Donate and deduct it
The easiest thing to do with unwanted gifts is to give them away or donate them to charity. However, doing the latter isn't as simple as in years past, when you dropped off a bag and grabbed a blank donation receipt. The IRS now requires that any non-cash charitable contributions must be in "good used condition or better" to qualify as a deduction. If the tags are still on the reindeer beanie from Aunt Ida, chances are it'll qualify. However, to avoid trouble with the tax man, Motley Fool tax guru Roy Lewis advises his clients to take digital photos of everything donated and reference each item's current condition. Check out the Salvation Army valuation site to find out how much you can write off for common household items. (See our Tax Center for more ways to stay on the right side of the suits come April.)
Give it away
One man's trash is another's treasure. You can put that fondue set on the curb and hope an admirer adopts it, or be more formal and use free listing sites to set that white elephant free. Craigslist.org, mentioned above, has an area devoted to free stuff, and Freecycle.org is dedicated solely to the practice of pawning off free stuff.
Finally, when all else fails, there's always that regifting closet to stock. Nearly one in four of us admits to passing off unwanted gifts to others. Just make sure to follow the single most important rule of regifting: Don't get caught. Here's a primer on the dos and don'ts of regifting.
And if you overdid it this holiday season, see our two-part holiday recovery plan for ways to pay off those credit card overindulgences ASAP and get in front of holiday '08 expenses so they won't come back to bite you next January.
More retail survival tips from The Motley Fool: