Returning Holiday Gifts: A Guide

It’s almost inevitable, so here’s how to make it less stressful

The holidays may be the season of giving, but some gifts may not be much of a pleasure to receive. Great Aunt Hannah’s heart may have been in the right place when she sent you that pair of fire-engine red reindeer socks but, 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.

With U.S. shoppers expected to spend $960.4 billion over the 2022 holiday shopping season according to the National Retail Federation, retailers may be looking at a wave of returns once January rolls around. If you anticipate being part of that wave, 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 delivered the gift, the recipient can decide whether to keep it or return it. If there’s any doubt about whether you actually will give the gift, 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

Return policies could throw a wrench in your plans if you're not sure what a particular store allows or if what used to apply doesn't hold any longer. According to a goTRG report, 60% of retailers say they plan to change their return and exchange policies for the 2022 holiday shopping season due to rising costs and volumes. Here are some of the key changes being made:

  • 67% say they plan to increase restocking or shipping fees
  • 32% are offering longer return windows
  • 24% are offering returnless refunds

Once you’ve decided that you want or need to return a gift, check the store’s return policy. This can often be found on the merchant’s website or on the back of the receipt. Some stores limit 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 for most purchases within 90 days of purchase, with free returns for online orders
  • Columbia Sportswear—Returns accepted up to 60 days; orders placed between 10/19/22 and 12/1/22 may be returned up to January 31st, 2023
  • 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)

When checking return policies, check the fine print for what's required to get a cash refund instead of store credit.

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 retailers may offer a store credit on items returned without a receipt, but don't count on it.

And 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. And when you give a present, remember to ask for a gift receipt at checkout that you can tuck into the package or have included in the delivery.

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. Hang on to it.

Beware of Deadlines

Many retailers impose deadlines on returns. These can vary greatly depending on the type of item. For example, electronics can have shorter time frames for returns than clothing or household goods.

If you have questions about keeping a gift, start by finding out how long you have to make your decision. If it's only a couple of days, don't ponder too long. Note that timelines for returns may 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. Check the website first before you head to the store and waste time waiting in the returns line. Online retailers may offer free return shipping—you should find that information with the rest of their return policies on their website. ,

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 pay to hang onto that unwanted gift. 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. 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. You’re definitely stuck with that monogrammed 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, consider donating them or regifting them to someone else.

How Do I Return a Gift Without a Receipt?

If you received a gift you'd like to return but don't have a copy of the receipt, you'll need to check the store's policy for returns. Some merchants may be willing to return an item without a receipt but you may only receive store credit, rather than cash. Keep in mind that some items, such as electronics, may not be returnable without a receipt or if the packaging has been opened.

Can You Return an Item With a Gift Receipt for Cash?

Gift receipts can be used to return items, but typically, you won't receive cash for them. Stores may only allow the original purchaser to receive a cash refund and offer store credit for those returning items with gift receipts.

How Long Do You Have to Return Holiday Gifts?

Return policies can vary from store to store, with some stores limiting you to a 30-day return window and others giving you up to one year to return items. When returning holiday gifts, whether you have a receipt or not, time is of the essence for ensuring that you don't miss the cutoff.

Is It Rude to Return Holiday Gifts?

Returning holiday gifts to the giver could be seen as rude unless the giver specifically asks for the gift back. But returning items that were gifted to you to the store is generally acceptable and billions of dollars in gifts are returned each holiday season.

What Happens to Returned Holiday Gifts?

What happens to returned gifts can depend on the reason for the return and the condition in which the item is received. If something is returned in its original packaging and there are no defects or damage, it may be restocked and sold to another customer. Retailers may, however, choose to donate or trash items that have been returned but cannot be resold.

The Bottom Line

Holiday giving is more costly than ever. 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.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. National Retail Federation. "NRF Predicts Healthy Holiday Sales as Consumers Navigate Economic Headwinds."

  2. Consumer Reports. "Guide to Returning Gifts: Retailers With the Best and Worst Policies: 4 Tips for Returning Gifts."

  3. goTRG. "goTRG 2022 Holiday Report: Retailers' Perspectives on Consumer Shopping and Returns."

  4. Bath & Body Works. "What Is Your Return Policy?"

  5. Bloomingdale’s. "What is the return and exchange policy?"

  6. Columbia Sportswear. "Online Returns."

  7. L.L. Bean. "Returns and Exchanges."

  8. Nike. "What Is Nike’s Return Policy?"

  9. Walmart. "We make returns easy."

  10. Target. "Returns."

  11. Personalization Mall. "Guarantee & Return Policy |"

  12. Tiffany & Co. "May I return an engraved item?"