Though Christmas may be the season of giving, some gifts may not be much of a pleasure to receive. Even though your Great Aunt's heart may have been in the right place when she sent you that oversized, shapeless sweater or pair of ugly reindeer socks, let's face it, you're never going to use them.

According to a survey by RedStag Fulfillment and Optro, 28% of merchandise sold over the holidays was returned last year. So how do you best return or exchange unwanted gift items with the least amount of stress?

Key Takeaways

  • It's an unavoidable fact of the holiday season that gifts will be returned to the store - more than a quarter of them according to a recent survey.
  • 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.
  • Other gifts, such as those that have been personalized for somebody else, are often non-returnable.

Avoid Opening Gifts

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, try to 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, like 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.

Review the Exchange Policy

Every merchant's return policy is different. Once you've decided that you'll be returning 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. Keep in mind that smaller retailers often have much stricter return policies and almost always require a receipt for returns.

Get the Receipt

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 almost always 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 DVD or book in your collection.

Beware of Deadlines

Many retailers impose deadlines on returns. These deadlines tend to vary greatly depending upon the type of item. For example, many electronic items have shorter timeframes for returns than clothing items. 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 rest on your laurels while you make your decision whether to keep or return. Timelines for returns may also be shorter for online retailers.

Online Versus Brick-And-Mortar

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 check into it before you attempt to do this. It's best to find out before you head out 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.

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 on to 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.

Defective Items

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

Nonreturnable Items

Items that have been personalized are often not returnable – so you're definitely stuck with that embroidered sweater or engraved pen set. Also, some types of clothing items are not returnable, like swimwear or undergarments. 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. 

The Bottom Line

Even though it may be the thought that counts, some gift items just aren't 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. If you do find that you're unable to return an item (or you just can't bring yourself to ask your great aunt for the receipt for those horrible socks) you could always try re-gifting it next year.