6 stores that make returns tough on gift recipients

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Say what you will about regifting. Like it or not, it's entirely possible a present you received this year is destined for the regift pile—or eBaybecause exchanging it for cash, or even store credit, isn't an option.

It's true retailers have been getting more flexible with their return policies in recent years. Many now offer special extended return periods, with purchases made during the holidays returnable well into January. Amazon now offers "instant returns" on some items, with the refund en route before you've even boxed up the item. And more websites, including Macy's and Saks, are offering free return shipping for select online orders.

"The big names are generally getting pretty good," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org.

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But there are returns for purchases you made, and then there are returns for gifts you received. The latter can still be particularly tough, especially if the purchaser didn't think to include a gift receiptand you're not comfortable telling them their present was a dud.

When there's no receipt in play, plenty of stores won't offer a refund or exchange at all. The best-case result in that scenario is typically store creditand don't expect full value. With no way to know how much the gift-giver paid, or if the gift even came from that store, "they're going to give you a credit for the lowest amount the item has recently sold for," said Michelle Madhok, chief executive of deal site SheFinds.com.

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There can be some oddball catches. By some stores' policies, the item may not have any return value if it came from the sale rack. "A lot of the time, if you're getting a deal, it's not returnable," Madhok said. Some websites, even with gifted goods, will only offer a refund to the original payment method (i.e., the giver's credit card), leaving the package recipient with nada.

With online returns, gift recipients may also have to jump through a few hoops of getting a so-called return merchandise authorization, entailing a phone call or email to customer service, said Kevon Hills, vice president of research for StellaService, which reviews retailer service. "We see a lot of companies that do not offer prepaid labels in their packages," he said. That entails at least a trip to the Post Office (or another shipping outpost), and maybe even shouldering the cost of return shipping.

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Even if you have a gift that doesn't hold to a seller's usual return policy, it can't hurt to ask, said Dworsky. There may be a more lenient holiday policy in play, and a sympathetic customer service rep may be willing to make an exception. "On occasion, I've been surprised," he said.

These six retailers have gift policies that may be less than giving to shoppers:

Sears

Sears relays this policy detail in a bolded, all-caps font: "Refunds and exchanges will not be given without receipt." Assuming you do have one, the return policy is separated into 30-, 60- and 90-day periods by item category. (Purchases made between Nov. 9 and Dec. 24 can be returned through Jan. 24 or the regular return deadline, whichever is later.) Some categories, including opened consumer electronics, are also subject to a 15 percent restocking fee. Sears did not respond to requests for comment.

Rakuten.com

The former Buy.com allows returns on most items within 45 days of the shipping date and has an extended holiday return deadline of Feb. 15 for items shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. But the site allows returns only, credited to the original payment method. According to the policy, "While we always try to satisfy our customers in any way possible, Buy.com is unable to do exchanges for different items." Unless the item is defective or damaged, you're also on the hook for return shipping charges. Rakuten.com did not respond to requests for comment.

American Apparel

As American Apparel's policy is written, there are a few areas of potential concern for gift recipients. According to the site, "Any item that was not purchased at full price cannot be returned. This includes sale items." Exchanges are also processed as new orders, it notes: "We will refund your original form of payment for the value of the returned merchandise and charge you for the new order." In practice, though, you might have more luck. An American Apparel spokeswoman said the policy on gift purchases is to offer store credit in the form of a gift card, so long as the return isn't a final sale item.

GameStop

The first line of GameStop's policies says it all: "A receipt is required for all returns and exchanges." That means online and store purchases. Returns won't be accepted at all for items that have been damaged, played or have missing parts if they were sold as a bundle. But a spokeswoman said there's a holiday policy exemption from Dec. 26 through Jan. 15. During that period, gift recipients can exchange qualifying items even if they do not have a receipt, she said.

Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble requires a receipt or gift receipt for all returns or exchanges. Some items, including gifted e-books, cannot be returned at all. If you happen to have a gift receipt, the extended holiday return policy offers a Jan. 31 deadline for items bought between Nov. 17 and Dec. 31. A Barnes & Noble spokeswoman confirmed the policy.

ThinkGeek.com

"Can I return something I received as a gift?" is a question on ThinkGeek's Returns & Exchanges page. Yes, the site answers, gift recipients can return an item. But return, per the site's other policies, means only a refund to the original payment method. (For some items, with a 15 percent restocking fee.) Exchanges are limited to requests for a different size of apparel. ThinkGeek.com did not respond to requests for comment.

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