How to navigate tighter holiday return policies

If you're on the receiving end of a bad holiday gift, returning it may be a little tougher this year.

Just 28 percent of stores have special holiday return policies this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That's down from 58 percent in 2008.

(Read more: Return policies now tighter)

To increase your odds of a successful return, pay close attention to the policy details. Stores often have different deadlines and terms for different categories. At Toys R Us, for example, some electronics must be returned by Jan. 9, and most other items by Jan. 25.

(Read more: Presents that may end up on the return pile)

No receipt doesn't necessarily mean no refund, either—you'll just get store credit for the item's lowest recent selling price. That's all the more reason to brave the mall crowds before post-holiday sales kick in.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @kelligrant.

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