(Read more: Receive an awful gift? Return policies are now tighter)
Four of the retailers with tight policies:
GameStop: Shoppers have a 30-day window from the date on the packing slip to return most items, which must be unopened. (Opened, defective items can be exchanged for another of the same item within 30 days.) The policy on returning Web orders in store is vague, saying "certain items" may be returned, but also that "store return policies may vary and are subject to manager approval." but an extended holiday return policy is in place, allowing customers to return unopened merchandise with a receipt from Oct. 1 and Dec. 24 as late as Jan. 15, 2014.
GameStop said a spokesperson was not available for comment.
Newegg.com: It has more than three dozen specialized policies that vary by category and sale type, some more lenient than others. The site's standard return policy allows returns for a refund or replacement within 30 days, and tacks on a 15 percent restocking fee when a refund is requested. Customers also pay for return shipping, even on defective items.
Newegg.com did not respond to requests for comment.
Sports Authority: On the plus side, an extended holiday return policy will let customers send back items ordered between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 as late as Feb. 20, 2014. But online purchases cannot be returned to stores, and mailing items back costs $6.50 on each order.
Sports Authority declined to comment.
Gilt.com: Gilt's policy varies by the type and cost of the item. Most "nonsized" items, including handbags and toys, are not returnable at all. Clothing, footwear and other returnable items priced at $199.99 or less can be returned only for site credit; pricier items can be returned for credit, or a refund less $7.95 shipping. In either case, items must be returned within 21 days of the ship date.
ilt spokeswoman said the site's policy strives to be as flexible as possible, with return availability noted on each item's page and again at checkout.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter