15% restocking fee target
Shoppers may be in for some nasty surprises the day after Christmas as stores continue to enforce complicated and restrictive return policies, including checking a "blacklist" of "serial returners" prior to a refund, or by imposing unexpected restocking fees. That is the conclusion of Consumer World's annual survey of retail return policies.
Some retailers including Sports Authority, one-third of Staples stores, Express, The Limited and KB Toys use a computer database by The Return Exchange of Irvine, CA to track customer returns. (Home Depot, Wal-mart, Barnes & Noble, and others reportedly use their own proprietary systems.) Typically, stores swipe the shopper's driver's license when a return is being made, and if the store's return limit is exceeded, the customer's tendered return is denied (no denials at KB). Some stores' posted policies do not warn shoppers of a cap on frequent returns. Others, like Express and The Limited, are for the first time explicitly disclosing return limits albeit on inconspicuous signs and receipt backs: five returns within any 90 day period with a receipt, or only up to $300 without a receipt.
Other stores are using increasingly strict but conventional means to curb returns. Items such as computers, digital cameras, and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shortened return periods, or no refunds at all. For example:
-- Last year, Sears introduced a broad 15% restocking fee on select home appliances, electronics, home improvements, household goods, lawn and garden equipment, and automotive items not returned unused with full packaging. In 2006, "sporting goods" was added, and certain unopened items now must be returned in 14 days. Their return policy still appears mainly on 6" by 5" signs in tiny print, and on the back of sales slips. This inconspicuous disclosure may not comply with state law.
-- Circuit City and Best Buy's return period is 14 days on digital cameras, camcorders, computers, monitors, and a few other items and they impose a 15% restocking fee if some of them have been opened. Though Circuit City's large yellow return policy signs with small white lettering have been moved from back walls closer to counters in some stores, they are still difficult to read.
-- JC Penney requires special occasion dresses to be returned with the "return tag" still in place. (This thwarts shoppers from "wardrobing" for a one-time wearing.)
-- Novel policies: Amazon deducts 20-50% for certain returns after 30 days. SmartBargains.com will keep any goods returned twice after 30 days, and provide no credit for such items. Buy.com's "Easy Returns" policy is over 1400 words long.
-- OfficeDepot.com only offers identical exchanges on laptops, digital cameras, PDAs, projectors, and handheld computers returned within 14 days. New for 2006: In-store, without a receipt, technology items are only exchangeable for the same item.
-- Target offers no returns without a receipt, but will search their system for one.
"There may be many unhappy returns this year if consumers are slapped with unexpected restocking fees, or find themselves erroneously placed on a returns blacklist," said Edgar Dworsky, Founder of Consumer World®, the Internet's largest public service consumer resource guide [ http://www.consumerworld.org ]. "There is also no excuse for retailers' continued failure to clearly disclose their return policies to shoppers in advance."
Some retailers relax their regular return deadlines at holiday time by extending the return period into January. Remarkably, in Consumer World's spot check of in-store return policy signage, some stores failed to post the terms of their holiday policies. Nonetheless, some chains with generous regular or extended holiday return deadlines include:
-- AMAZON.COM: Jan. 31 (most items shipped 11/01 through 12/31). 15% restocking fee: open computers.
-- BEST BUY: January 8 (for camcorders, digital cameras, printers, monitors, projectors, radar detectors); Jan. 24 (all other items bought since Nov. 1). Computers: 14 days from purchase only.
-- BUY.COM: Holiday return policy eliminated.
-- CIRCUIT CITY: January 25 most items; Jan. 8 for 14 day items including computers
-- COSTCO: No deadline (except 6 months for computers)
-- KOHL'S: No deadline (with receipt)
-- MARSHALLS: January 6 (for purchases Oct. 29 - Dec. 6)
-- OVERSTOCK.COM: By January 10, initiate return for most items purchased November 1 or later.
-- STAPLES: No deadline for office supplies. (January 6 for electronics & furniture bought since Nov. 24)
-- TJ MAXX: January 7 (for purchases Oct. 29 - Dec. 6)
-- TARGET: 90 days from purchase (15% restocking fee on portable electronics, digital cameras, camcorders; specially marked clearance items only qualify for current sale price)
-- TOYS R US: 90 days (45 days for unopened electronics, video products)
-- WAL-MART: 90 days most items (others: 15 days [PCs], 30 days [cameras], or 45 days [PC accessories.])
Consumer rights vary from state to state with respect to product returns. Generally speaking, 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". Most states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase, usually by means of a 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.
TIPS FOR HASSLE-FREE RETURNS:
-- To improve your chances of getting a full refund, provide a sales slip or gift receipt, and return the item in new condition, unopened, and with all original packaging material. Returns without a receipt are subject to the retailer's posted return policy, which might result in receiving only a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for in recent weeks, 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/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.
Consumer World®, launched in 1995, is a Boston-based, public service, non-commercial consumer resource guide with over 2000 links to everything "consumer" on the Internet. Edgar Dworsky, the founder of Consumer World, is a former Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection and Anti-trust Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office.