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May You Have Many Happy (Gift) Returns

"Thank you so much ... I love it! Um, do you still have the receipt?"

Good news for giftees: Nearly half of all holiday gift givers enclose either a gift receipt or an original receipt with their presents most of the time, according to a National Retail Federation (NRF) survey. This helps delay that uncomfortable presto-exchange-o moment (for that third coffee grinder or "Puppies in a Basket" throw pillow for a mid-century modern enthusiast) until the gift giver is way out of earshot.

This season, though, consumers may find that even a receipt doesn't guarantee a slam-dunk transaction at the checkout counter. Stores such as Best Buy (NYSE: BBY  ) , Circuit City (NYSE: CC  ) , and Sears (Nasdaq: SHLD  ) have been known to charge a restocking fee of up to 15% of the item's cost if the box is open. And watch out if your family really gets your tastes wrong: With a wave of the scanner, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) , and Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) identify frequent returners (e.g. those who make three returns sans receipt in a 45-day period), making serial exchanging a bigger hassle.

There's good reason for high suspicions at the return counter. According to the NRF, retailers lose an estimated $30 billion annually from retail fraud and theft, although other research shows that just a small percentage of customers actually commit return fraud.

Until you're forced to have a White Elephant exchange party, heed these eight tips for smooth merchandise exchanges and returns:

  • Return the unwanted item ASAP. Wait too long, and that lovely $55.97 deluxe mah-jongg set may be marked down to $7.99. Without a receipt, that's what you'll get in return.

  • Return the item in its original packaging. Neatness counts.

  • Be willing to exchange the item or accept store credit, if it means you'll get more to spend (provided it's not at a store whose wares you wouldn't be caught dead in).

  • Got a gift card you're not going to use? Selena Maranjian reports on the robust secondary market for gift cards in "There Are Profits in Those Gift Cards."

  • Online vendors will often pay the return shipping cost if you exchange the gift for another item. Some enlightened large chains will actually accept returns for online items at their bricks-and-mortar locations.

  • Remember to bring the original credit card you used for the purchase if you're returning a gift you bought.

  • Befriend the sales staff. Niceness counts. Employees of smaller stores sometimes use their discretion about whether to allow return/exchange transactions.

  • Avoid peak shopping hours so employees are less frazzled and more willing to work with you. If you hit a brick wall of resentment, try a different location. And remember -- smile!

  • Unable to exchange or get a store credit or cash back? There's always the fine art of regifting.

More on the spirit of giving (and returning):

Best Buy is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Home Depot is an Inside Value pick. For a 30-day free trial, click here and here, respectively.

Fools, now is the time to open your hearts and wallets to worthy causes! Please support our five Foolish charities atwww.foolanthropy.com.

Are you the recipient of an unwanted 27- to 34-inch plasma TV (in its original packaging and under warranty)?Dayana Yochimwill happily exchange it for her 19-inch oldfangled Sanyo. The Fool'sdisclosure policyis the perfect fit every time.


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