It's not even Christmas and I already have a few returns stacked up on my kitchen counter, waiting to go back to the stores.
There's the holiday dress for my daughter that didn't quite fit and the earrings that, upon second look, fell under the category: "What was I thinking?"
For every sweater, sandwichmaker and Scrabble game unwrapped this week, a significant number will be returned to the store with a big "No, thank you." Go to any store in the next week and chances are the return line will be just as long as the checkout line.
About one-third of Americans will bring back at least one gift after the holidays, based on a recent study by FedEx. Women are more likely to return holiday gifts than men, and about 33 percent of gift recipients will complete all their returns by Jan. 1.
Last year, merchandise returns accounted for about $264 billion in lost sales for U.S. retailers, the National Retail Federation says. About a quarter of those returns happened in November and December and reflected about 11 percent of holiday sales.
Big money means big potential for fraud, hence the reason stores recommend you keep receipts and many ask to see identification when you make a return. The NRF, in its survey of 62 retail companies, said stores expect to lose $8.8 billion in return fraud, including $3.4 billion during the holiday season alone.
A large chunk of that comes from returning used or stolen goods or using counterfeit receipts to return merchandise. Overall, nearly 6 percent of holiday returns will be fraudulent, up about 1 percent over last year, the NRF said.
The issue of bringing goods back to stores has become so commonplace that retailers have coined a term for people who excessively buy and return items — "returnaholics." They fall into a few categories: those seeking a cash refund or credit illegally, and those who abuse return policies or buy merchandise knowing they will return it later. There's also the "bulimic shoppers" who buy things for the buzz but later regret it and purge their purchases at the return counter.
As someone whose first job was in retail, I like to take note of what people return whenever I'm standing in the customer service line. I'm always amazed by people's gall. Like the time someone returned a blowup mattress — half inflated without the box. Or the person who brought back a dirty blender.
Sure, both could have been defective. More likely, the owners no longer had a use for the stuff and figured the stores would take it back no questions asked.
And they did. Stores have increasingly relaxed return policies to better compete with other retailers and encourage shoppers to buy worry-free. Most stores give you 30 days — if not longer — and many online retailers with brick-and-mortar locations allow you to make returns at their physical stores. And while certain electronics can have a short return window, those bulky kitty slippers with whiskers might be returnable for a year.
Kiplinger, a Washington, D.C., publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice, recently put out a list of the top retailers with generous return policies. Here are a few notable ones with local stores.
Macy's has no time limit on returns and exchanges and, for purchases on a Macy's card, can track down the price customers paid within the past two years. Customers without a gift receipt will get a gift card for the item's lowest price within the past 180 days.
Nordstrom doesn't have an official return policy other than send your item back or bring it to a store. Receipts are helpful, but not necessary.
Bath & Body Works has no time limit on returns and will issue a full refund to customers with a receipt. Customers without a receipt can receive store credit based on an item's current price.
Kohl's has a "No Questions Asked — Hassle Free" return policy for all purchases with no time restrictions. Purchases made on a Kohl's charge card can be located up to a year after the purchase and applied as a credit to the customer's account. Non-Kohl's charge card purchases and purchases made outside the 12-month time frame qualify for a store credit or a corporate-issued refund check.
Even Zappos, an online shoe and apparel retailer, will give customers a full refund if they send items back in their original condition and packaging within a year. All returns can be shipped for free with a prepaid mailing label printed from Zappos.com, which pretty much takes the stress out of buying something sight unseen.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.