Returning gifts? Here's how to simplify the process

Bad Santa? Gifts & returns
Bad Santa? Gifts & returns   

Eager to return that ugly sweater or exchange the too-tight slippers Santa gave you this year? How much time and hassle that will require depends a lot on where the gift was purchased.

Some stores are making it easier than ever to return or exchange holiday gifts by offering even longer return periods, and even postage-free return shipping, according to the latest survey by Consumerworld.org.

However, other retailers have made return policies more complex over the years by imposed restrictions on returns of certain items. Retailers say the changes are part of an effort to reduce return fraud, which Consumerworld says cost retailers over $9 billion in 2013.

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Still, there are ways to simplify the process, regardless of the seller.

Read the Fine Print

People enter to Macy's store at the Newport Mall in Jersey City, N.J.
Getty Images
People enter to Macy's store at the Newport Mall in Jersey City, N.J.

Several major retailers have widened their holiday return window by a few days or weeks. Sears widened its holiday return window to purchases made as early as Nov. 9. Marshall's and TJMaxx extended their return deadline by two weeks to Jan. 23, and for purchases made as far back as Oct. 19. Staples has extended its deadline by almost a week to Jan. 17 for electronics and furniture. (Office supplies have no deadline.)

Many online retailers are offering "free returns," meaning they pay the return postage for unwanted items. Yet sometimes, the offer only applies to specific categories. Macy's, Amazon, Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's may have some exclusions or restrictions on items that can be returned, so read those stores' return policies carefully.

Other major retailersincluding Target, Old Navy, The Gap and Nordstromare offering free returns on all online purchases storewide.

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Some gifts are also easier to return than others. Electronic items may be subject to stricter rules than clothing. Computers, digital cameras and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shorter return periods or no refunds at all.

There's an App for That

Regardless of which store the gift is from, there are apps that can help streamline the return process. Returnguru allows you to snap a photo of your receipt, and the app automatically sends you a reminder before the return deadline comes. It will also nudge you for coupons.

Another app called Slice grants access to the e-mail address you use for purchases (ideally a dedicated account so that you're not slammed with spam) and gathers your online receipts. It also links to return policies and provides customer-service numbers for participating retailers.

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And if you prefer cash to the gift card you got, use an app like Raise. It's a new addition to the online service that serves as a marketplace for buyers and sellers of gift cards, and allows you to sell the gift cards you've accumulated.

The catch: You'll need to list your gift card at a discount. The steeper the discount, the faster it sells.