Have someone on your Christmas list who's never happy with their gift? Be careful where you shop.
According to Optoro, a reverse logistics company, roughly a quarter of retail returns take place during the holiday season — meaning an ill-advised purchase can turn from bad to worthless if it's bought at a store with a strict return policy.
There are several retailers who offer hassle-free returns with no deadline. These include department stores Nordstrom and Kohl's; specialty retailers L.L. Bean and Lands' End; and home goods store Bed Bath & Beyond.
On the flip side, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Lululemon offer just 14 days for shoppers to return purchases, while Best Buy allows 15 days for most products. Fast-fashion shop Forever 21 allows only 21 days for returns, though it gives a little more leeway for online purchases. Sears and GameStop allow just 30 days for returns and do not accept them without a receipt.
Several of these retailers, however, do extend their return windows during the holiday shopping season.
"Since the rules vary so much from store to store, you really have to read the fine print," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of the Consumer World online guide.
Kevon Hills, vice president of research at customer analytics firm StellaService, said retailers' policies often come down to what type of merchandise they're selling.
For example, if a store sells highly seasonal products that would be out of style if returned a year later, it's more likely to tighten the time frame. Or, if the product is something that could be worn once and then returned — a problem known as "wardrobing" — retailers often enlist stricter standards to cut down on the risk of fraudulent returns.
For a similar reason, electronic items such as game consoles are often restricted to limited returns, Dworsky said. According to the National Retail Federation, retailers lost an estimated $3.8 billion to return fraud last holiday season.
The ability to make easy, free returns is especially important as more shopping takes place online. But an increase in returns also results in higher costs for retailers, particularly when they're done for free.
In a report released just ahead of Black Friday, DynamicAction found that holiday returns had already increased 9.3 percent compared to the prior season. Overall, returns accounted for $642.6 billion in lost sales for retailers during the year ended in the spring, the firm said.
In addition to retailers that extend the allotted time for holiday returns, Dworsky noted others "slice and dice" their policies, putting in place different rules for different product categories. There are others that provide different levels of service depending on whether the shopper has their receipt.
Because of such specifications, shoppers who are still deciding where to make a purchase need to weigh things like shipping speed and price against a retailer's return policy, Hills said.
"Those are the things as a consumer that you have to think about," he said.