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Five Steps to Happy Returns

YONKERS, N.Y. -- Socks again? As consumers scramble to purchase gifts this holiday season, shoppers also need to keep in mind that nearly 20 percent of Americans plan to return at least one holiday gift, according to a Consumer Reports Holiday Shopping Poll conducted last year.

And though most shopping policies are more lenient than they were before the recession, some companies have fought fraud and abuse with stricter policies. But there are ways to prepare for a hassle-free return process with the least amount of headache, according to the January issue of Consumer Reports on newsstands Dec. 7 and online at

"Return policies are a moving target so you always have to be sure to read the current fine print," said Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor and resident shopping expert. "Start by purchasing gifts from retailers with flexible return policies, like web merchants that include free prepaid return shipping labels with purchase."

Return rules to live by

Retailers might have different return requirements for items that are bought in their stores, through their website, or by mail order. Gift recipients probably need the receipt, the box the gift came in, and the retailer's enclosed mailing label. Call or visit the merchant's website for specifics, such as whether something that was purchased online can be returned to a walk-in store. Consumer Reports also recommends shoppers keep these tips in mind:

1. Know the time frame. Big retailers usually allow 90 days for returns of most items but might have shorter periods for electronics, software, and CDs and DVDs. Retailers sometimes extend deadlines during the holiday shopping seasons. Electronics bought at Walmart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days, for example, but this year the clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26 for purchases made between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25.

2. Get a receipt. Many merchants used to offer at least store credit to shoppers without a receipt, but now some shoppers might be out of luck.

If the purchase was made by credit card, debit card or check, some stores will try to find an electronic receipt, but cash customers might be out of luck.

3. Bring a driver's license. Some companies, such as Best Buy, require a government-issued ID with a receipt to make a return. (That way they can track serial returners even if the transaction is in cash.)

4. Be sure before you open the box. Merchants can't resell an item as new after the package has been opened, so they impose a restocking fee, usually 15 percent of the product's cost. The fees apply mostly to electronics, but Sears also charges for mattresses, built-in appliances, and special orders on hardware, sporting goods, and other merchandise. Even a missing instruction manual, cords and cables or warranty card can give retailers reason to deny the return.

Items such as computer software, video games, CDs and DVDs aren't generally returnable for another title after the seal has been broken. If an item comes with a rebate offer, make sure it works before removing the UPC code to redeem the rebate.

5. Know where to go. If the item was purchased online and the merchant has a walk-in store, check the website to see whether the store accepts returns to avoid repacking, a post-office trip, and shipping fees.

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