How to Spot the Best Return Policies for Your Holiday Shopping

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I’ve said it before: Check a store’s return policy before you buy – or you could regret it later.

With the holiday shopping season about to start, this is especially important. It’s bad enough to get stuck with an unwanted purchase because you didn’t read the store’s return policy. But it’s even worse when you stick loved ones with gifts they can’t return or exchange – because you didn’t read the store’s return policy.

Avoid becoming the Secret Santa that everyone hopes they don’t get by breaking down return policies. Here’s how I do it…

Step 1: Find the policy

If you can’t find a store’s policy on its website, search the store’s name and the word “return policy.” If you still can’t find it, call the store and ask where it is. If an employee can’t point you to the store’s return policy Web page, don’t shop there.

Step 2: Read the policy

Yes, you’re going to have to actually read it. Then, focus on the most important parts, which I do by finding the answers to key questions…

  • What’s the time window for returns? Most stores accept returns anywhere from two weeks to three months after the purchase date. But some only accept returns within 24 to 72 hours – and other stores accept returns anytime.
  • If you return an online purchase by mail, will you have to pay for the return shipping? Most stores will make you pay to ship a return, which is why the next question is important.
  • Are online purchases returnable to brick-and-mortar stores or only by mail? Returning a purchase to a store saves you the shipping expense.

A cheat sheet

Below is a list of stores with shopper-friendly return policies. Most have a generous return window and allow online purchases to be returned at brick-and-mortar-stores. Plus, our Deals page often features coupons, promo codes, and sales for these stores, so always check it too before shopping.

Babies R Us and Toys R Us

  • Time window? 90 days for most items (see policy for exceptions).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, but only for store credit.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with original packaging and any paperwork, but you pay the return shipping unless the purchase was damaged or defective.

Costco Wholesale

  • Time window? None for most items (see policy for list of electronics that must be returned within 90 days).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes – and they’ll even refund the shipping!
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Costco’s return policy doesn’t mention mail returns (except for items that arrived by a freight carrier, which the carrier will pick it up from your home), so I called them. A customer service rep said all mail returns may be sent back the same way they arrived. So, if your purchase arrived by UPS, Costco will give you a prepaid UPS label to send it back. They’ll also refund your original shipping cost, according to the rep.
  • Note: Costco even allows returns of Photo Center purchases – with just a phone call. They’ll also refund your membership fee at any point if you’re dissatisfied.

Kohl’s (department store)

  • Time window? None!
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with receipt.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping.

Land’s End (clothing, shoes, and accessories for the whole family; school uniforms; luggage; home goods)

  • Time window? None!
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with the original packing slip, to any Sears store.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping, a flat rate of $6.95.

L.L. Bean (clothing, shoes, and accessories for the whole family; school uniforms; luggage; home goods)

  • Time window? None!
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, but you pay the return shipping unless you’re an L.L. Bean Visa cardholder.

Macy’s

  • Time window? 180 days for most items (see policy for exceptions).
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? Yes, with invoice, for most items (excludes area rugs).
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with return form, for most items (excludes bridesmaid dresses), but you pay the return shipping unless there was an error on Macy’s part.
  • Note: Gift recipients can only return a gift for store credit, and food and gourmet gifts are nonreturnable.

Walmart

  • Time window? 90 days for most store purchases (see policy for exceptions), and 90 days for all online purchases.
  • E-purchases returnable? Yes, with packing slip and packaging materials.
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with return label, but you pay the return shipping for some items (search policy for “return shipping” to find the items this applies to).
  • Note: Another advantage to gift-shopping at Walmart is that they offer cash for returns without the receipt. (Most stores would only offer store credit.) But this policy only applies to purchases of less than $25, so they only offer store credit for more-expensive purchases.

Zappos.com (name-brand shoes, clothing, and bags)

  • Time window? 365 days
  • E-purchases returnable to stores? N/A (Zappos is an online-only store.)
  • E-purchases returnable by mail? Yes, with the original packaging. Plus, they pay for the return shipping!

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