Buyer Beware: Return Deadlines Are Shrinking

Photo by Luis Molinero /

This story comes from partner site Consumer World.

Based on its 16th-annual return policy survey, reports that some prominent retailers are following a trend of implementing ever-shorter return periods. Stores that once had unlimited return policies have cut them to one year, then to 180 days and now in some cases to 90 days or less.

Many retailers, however, continue to offer special extended holiday return deadlines. This allows gifts purchased in November to be returned until mid- to late-January, considerably beyond the normal return deadline in some cases.

Stores also continue to “slice and dice” their return policies, creating complicated rules for different categories of items. Electronic items may be subject to shorter return periods than, say, clothing. Some stores track shoppers’ return frequency in a database. Over the past five years, 30% of retailers have taken steps like these and changed their return policies in part to help fight return fraud, according to the National Retail Federation.

The complexity of stores’ return policies is underscored by their sheer length. The actual policies of the dozen stores in the below chart span some 90 pages, totaling over 30,000 words.

New and unusual features of return policies

Noteworthy policies, policy changes, or unusual return policies for 2019 include:

  • Kohl’s eliminated its longstanding no return deadline policy in favor of requiring most returns in 180 days.
  • Bed Bath & Beyond reduced its return period again, this time to 180 days. Just last year it replaced its no time-limit return policy with a one-year deadline. In addition, this year electric items must now be returned in 90 days instead of a year.
  • The Macy’s returns deadline has been reduced to 90 days for most items from its previous 180-day limit. (Before that it had a one-year period, and before that, it had an unlimited period.) It also has 25 exceptions to the new 90-day rule and further limits return periods for certain categories of items.
  • Walmart cut the return window for TVs from 90 days to just 30. However, it increased the return period for other electronics from 15 to 30 days.
  • Best Buy now excludes major appliances from its extended holiday return period and no longer provides 15 to 30 extra return days for those items for elite members.

Other unusual policies include:

  • Amazon has some two dozen exceptions to its regular 30-day return policy. Groceries, pet food, wine and plants are not returnable but may be refundable. For some other items, customers are issued instant refunds upon shipping them back. Amazon is now paying for return shipping on items purchased by voice using Alexa.
  • Target RedCard holders get 30 extra return days, and everyone gets free return shipping for purchases. Best Buy sometimes adds 15 to 30 extra days for Elite members.
  • Store brands at Target have a one-year return period.
  • Some retailers require tags to remain on dresses and gowns for returns to thwart “wardrobing.”
  • Walmart customers can now start their return on the Walmart app by scanning the receipt, and then finishing it in-store at the express lane. Also, without a receipt, Walmart gives customers the option of a cash refund (if the purchase was under $25), a gift card for the amount of the purchase (if it was over $25), or an even exchange. Walmart tracks returns in a database and may deny excessive or even any returns.

“We’ve seen a progression over the years of ever-shrinking return periods,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World, a leading consumer education website. “Stores that started with no return deadline at all have tightened their policies in stages, with some down to 90 days or less. Shorter return periods help reduce customer abuse and prevent stores from being stuck with outdated merchandise.”

Chains with generous regular or holiday return deadlines for purchases made in their brick-and-mortar locations, unless otherwise stated, include: Jan. 31 for most items shipped Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. Late returns: 20% restocking fee.
Bed Bath & Beyond New 180-day return window for most items; 90 days for electrics. If there is no receipt and it is not findable, a 20% fee is deducted from the refund.
Best Buy Jan. 14 for most purchases Nov. 1 – Dec. 31. Elite members may get more time.
Costco No deadline, but 90 days for: TVs, computers, cameras, smart watches, MP3 players, cellphones, monitors and major appliances.
Kohl’s New 180-day deadline, but premium electronics bought Nov. 1 – Dec. 25 returnable until Jan. 31.
Macy’s stores New 90-day deadline for most returns. Some two-dozen exceptions with shorter deadlines. Holiday return deadline of Jan. 31 for a few item categories, Jan. 8 for tech items.
Marshalls Jan. 25 for purchases Oct. 13 – Dec. 24. This retailer posts clear in-store signs about their extended holiday return policy every year.
Sears Jan. 31 for select purchases Nov. 1 – Dec. 24. Major appliances, others excluded. A 15% restocking fee on certain categories like furniture, opened electronics, etc.
Staples No deadline for office supplies. Jan. 11 for electronics and furniture bought since Nov. 17.
TJ Maxx Jan. 25 for purchases Oct. 13 – Dec. 24. This retailer posts clear in-store signs about their extended holiday return policy every year.
Target For most items, 90 days; 30 days for electronics and entertainment items; and 15 days for most Apple items. Days begin Dec. 26 for these items bought since Nov. 1. May deny refund for opened/damaged/unreceipted items. RedCard holders get 30 extra days.
Walmart stores For most items, 90 days. For purchases made from Oct. 24 onward, 30 days (TVs and electronics), and 14 days for cellphones, but count days starting Dec. 26.

Return policy law varies from 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

For hassle-free returns, Consumer World offers the following advice:

  • Don’t fight the crowds on the return lines the day after Christmas; if you’re there, grab some of the advertised bargains instead. Go back a day or two later.
  • To improve your chances of getting full credit, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, 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 your 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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