Though Christmas may be the season of giving, some gifts may not be much of a pleasure to receive. Even though Great Aunt Hannah’s heart may have been in the right place when she sent you that pair of fire-engine red reindeer socks, let’s face it, you’re never going to wear them. And it’s possible that you may purchase a gift for someone else that needs to be returned for one reason or another.

According to the real estate firm CBRE, $70.5 billion of merchandise sold over the 2020 holiday season is expected to be returned, thanks to an increase of 40% in online sales (online sales have a higher rate of return, about 30%, than in-store sales). If you anticipate needing to return something after the holidays, it’s helpful to know how to do it effectively and with minimal stress.

Key Takeaways

  • It’s an unavoidable fact of the holiday season that gifts will be returned to the store.
  • To ensure that returns go smoothly, refrain from opening the merchandise’s packing and look for a gift receipt.
  • While many retailers do offer generous return policies, they also have strict deadlines after which you can no longer return items.
  • Some gifts, such as those that have been personalized, are often nonreturnable.

Avoid Opening Gifts Whenever Possible

Although you may feel a temptation to open a boxed or packaged gift to take a closer look, or perhaps even to try on a clothing item that’s so bad it’s downright amusing, restrain yourself. Opening packages or removing tags often makes it more difficult to return items, and some stores may charge a restocking fee or not accept them at all. This is especially the case with certain types of gifts, such as computer software, CDs, and DVDs, or any item with damaged packaging where the item cannot be resold.

For best results don’t open boxes or take off tags until you’re sure you want to keep the gift. The same is true for gifts you’ve purchased to give to others. Once you’ve passed the gift on, the recipient can decide whether to keep it or return it. If there’s any doubt about whether you actually will give the gift, it’s better to keep the packaging and tags intact.

If you need to return something that’s been opened, the store you’re returning it to may limit you to receiving store credit, a store gift card, or exchanging it for a similar item in lieu of getting cash.

Review Store Exchange Policies

Every merchant’s return policy is different, and state laws vary widely on mandating refund and return policies. Once you’ve decided that you want or need to return a gift, take a look at the store’s return policy. This can often be found on the merchant’s website or on the back of the receipt. Some stores place limits on when gifts can be returned or may charge restocking fees. Know what you’re getting into before you head out to the store or request a return online. Keep in mind that smaller retailers often have much stricter return policies and almost always require a receipt for returns.

Here are some of the big-brand retailers that have the most generous return policies:

  • Bath and Body Works—Return anything, for any reason, at any time
  • Bloomingdale’s—Returns accepted within 365 days of purchase
  • Columbia Sportswear—Returns accepted up to 90 days
  • L.L. Bean—Returns accepted within one year of purchase
  • Nike—Returns accepted up to 60 days
  • Walmart—Returns accepted up to 90 days, except for most electronics (30 days) and post-paid wireless phones (14 days)

Keep Track of Receipts

Returning an item is almost always easier when you have the receipt. Whether it’s the original store receipt or a gift receipt, the process will likely go a lot more smoothly. Some stores may offer store credit on items returned without a receipt, but this is generally at the discretion of the store. If you are able to return an item without a receipt, keep in mind that you’ll only be able to get the store’s most recent price.

There’s no way for a retailer to know what was paid for the item, so if it’s on sale now, you’re stuck with having only the sale value refunded to you. Though it might be awkward or difficult to ask a friend or family member for the receipt, there are tactful ways to do it. Try telling them that a clothing item didn’t fit, or perhaps that you already have that book or DVD in your collection.

If you’re attempting to return items purchased online, you may need the order number or reference number included on the original packing slip in lieu of a receipt.

Beware of Deadlines

Many retailers impose deadlines on returns. These deadlines tend to vary greatly depending on the type of item. For example, many electronic items can have shorter time frames for returns. Be aware of these deadlines when you’re making your decision on whether or not to keep the item.

If you have any question at all as to whether or not you’d like to keep the gift in question, find out first how long you have to make your decision. If you’ve only got a couple of days, you definitely don’t have time to ponder while you make your decision whether to keep or return. Time lines for returns may also be shorter for online retailers.

Setting calendar alerts is a helpful way to keep track of return window deadlines for gifts you’ve purchased in case you need to return them later.

Online vs. Brick-and-Mortar Returns

Some online retailers that also have brick-and-mortar stores may allow you to return items to their retail locations. However, it’s best to find out before you head to the store and waste time waiting in the returns line. Online retailers post their return policies on their websites. You may be entitled to a free return by mail, though it’s up to the store to decide whether to offer free return shipping.

If the website won’t allow free returns by mail or returns to their brick-and-mortar stores, you’ll definitely want to know how much a return is going to cost you. At the end of the day, it might just be best to hang onto that unwanted gift if it’s going to end up costing you money in postage to return it. Some online retailers only credit the account of the person who purchased the item, so be sure to review the retailer’s policy before sending the item back.

If you need to return an item you purchased online but don’t have a receipt, the retailer may be able to look it up depending on which payment method you used.

Defective and Nonreturnable Items

Items that have been opened but are being exchanged because they are defective are generally returnable, so if that new food processor doesn’t actually work, you should still be able to exchange it even if you’ve taken it out of the box. Generally, it’s best to try gift items you hope to keep as soon as you can to make sure they’re not defective. You don’t want to wait too long to return defective items. And note that it's still much easier to return defective items when you have the receipt.

Some gifts you may not be able to return at all. For instance, items that have been personalized are often not returnable unless there is an error in the personalization, so you’re definitely stuck with that embroidered sweater or engraved pen set.  Also, some types of clothing items are usually not returnable, such as swimwear and undergarments, unless they are unopened. The same goes for earrings and cosmetic products, which are generally not returnable for hygienic reasons. Perishable food items or fresh-cut flowers are often not returnable unless they’re defective. 

If you received any gifts that are nonreturnable, you could consider donating them or regifting them to someone else.

The Bottom Line

Holiday giving is more costly than ever, and even though it may be the thought that counts, some gift items you will receive just won’t be worth keeping. If they’re simply going to clutter up your living space and never be used, it’s probably wise to exchange them for something you will actually get some use out of. And in some cases it may be necessary to return a gift you’ve purchased for someone else if it turns out that something else may be more appropriate.