COVID-19 Prompts Return Policy Changes

Disappointed woman opening an online purchase
Nicoleta Ionescu /

This story originally appeared on Consumer World.

Based on its 17th annual return policy survey, reports that some prominent retailers have modified their return policies to give shoppers more time to return unwanted goods.

These changes came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic and an earlier start to this year’s holiday shopping season. In some cases, however, returns were restricted during the year because of health concerns or state guidelines.

Many retailers continue to offer special extended holiday return deadlines. This allows gifts purchased as early as Oct. 1 — a month earlier than usual in a couple of cases — to be returned until mid- to late January, considerably beyond the normal return deadline.

Noteworthy return policy changes for 2020 include:

  • Amazon expanded its holiday return window by a month, allowing returns of most items shipped starting Oct. 1 to be sent back as late as Jan. 31.
  • Best Buy expanded its holiday return window by two weeks to include purchases made as early as Oct. 13.
  • Target expanded its holiday return window by a month to include purchases of electronics and entertainment items made as early as Oct 1. In March, it had suspended all returns for at least three weeks.
  • Home Depot doubled its regular return period from 90 days to 180 days for most items to accommodate customers concerned by in-store visits.
  • Kohl’s, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls added 30 extra days for returns after any closed stores reopen.
  • Costco stopped allowing returns of high-demand items like toilet paper earlier in the year but then resumed normal returns.
  • Walmart paused certain returns starting April 20, but has resumed full returns except as provided by state COVID-19 guidelines.
  • Bed Bath & Beyond bucked the trend and reduced its return period again, this time to 90 days from 180 days in 2019, from one year in 2018, and from a completely open-ended policy historically.
  • Staples no longer accepts returns of open headsets and earbuds as of April 10, presumably based on health concerns.

“Many major retailers reacted to the pandemic and a longer holiday shopping season by giving customers more time to make returns. But at the same time, some imposed return restrictions for health reasons or to limit hoarding,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World, a leading consumer education website. “However, COVID hasn’t stopped Bed Bath & Beyond from continuing to annually whittle down its once-generous, completely open-ended return policy.”

Generous 2020 return policies

Summarized below are some chains with generous regular or holiday return deadlines for purchases made in their brick-and-mortar locations, unless otherwise stated: Jan. 31 for most items shipped Oct. 1 through Dec.31. Some returns subject to a restocking fee. Some returns free at UPS, Kohl’s and other drop-off locations.
Bed Bath & Beyond New 90-day return period for most items. 30 days for smart tech (but Jan. 31 for those purchases made Nov. 15 onward) and seasonal; 60 days for electrics. If there is no receipt and it is not findable, a 20% fee is deducted from the refund for customer’s presumed coupon use.
Best Buy Jan. 16 for most purchases made Oct. 13 to Jan. 2. Elite members may get more time.
Costco No deadline, but 90 days for: TVs, computers, cameras, smart watches, MP3 players, cellphones, monitors, major appliances, etc.
Home Depot 180-day deadline for most items. 30-90 days for some items.
Kohl’s 180-day deadline, but premium electronics bought Nov. 1 to Dec. 25 returnable until Jan. 31.
Macy’s stores 90-day deadline for most returns. Holiday return deadline of Jan. 31 for most items, but 20 exceptions apply. Free mail returns for orders.
Marshalls Jan. 24 for purchases made Oct. 11 to Dec. 24. This retailer posts clear in-store signs about its extended holiday return policy every year — a rarity among retailers. If stores are closed, 30-day extension to return goods after reopening.
Staples No deadline for office supplies. Jan. 9 for electronics, and furniture bought since Nov. 15.
TJ Maxx Jan. 24 for purchases made Oct. 11 to Dec. 24. This retailer posts clear in-store signs about its extended holiday return policy every year — a rarity among retailers. If stores are closed, 30-day extension to return goods after reopening.
Target 90 days for most items. 30 days for electronics and entertainment items, 15 days for most Apple items, 14 days for cellphones. Days begin Dec. 26 for these items bought since Oct. 1. RedCard holders get 30 extra days.
Walmart 90 days for most items. For purchases made from Oct. 16 onward, 30 days (most electronics), and 14 days for cellphones, but count days starting Dec. 26. Free mail returns for online purchases.

Return policy law varies state to state. Generally, a store can set up any return policy it wants, whether it is “all sales final,” “merchandise credit only” or “all returns in 30 days.”

Many states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase, usually by means of a conspicuous sign. Some states do not consider a disclosure that only appears on the sales receipt to meet this requirement.

It is not unreasonable, however, to require customers to provide a sales slip or gift receipt to establish where and when the item was purchased, and at what price. Those with a gift receipt will generally only receive an even exchange or store credit, but not cash.

Tips for hassle-free returns

To make the return process less stressful, Consumer World offers the following advice:

  • Don’t fight the crowds on the return lines the day after Christmas. Go a day or two later, or better yet, see if the store provides free returns by mail.
  • To improve your chances of getting full credit, provide a sales slip or gift receipt and return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all packaging material. Returns without a receipt are subject to the posted return policy, which might result in you receiving only a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for recently, or possibly no refund or exchange at all.
  • If the item to be returned is defective, some states, such as Massachusetts, require the store to give the consumer his or her choice of one of the three “R’s” — repair, replacement or refund — irrespective of the store’s posted return policy.
  • Consumers who have a problem returning a gift should first contact the store manager or customer service department of the retailer. If a satisfactory resolution is not obtained, then a complaint can be filed with the state attorney general’s office or local consumer agency.

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