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Preparing for holiday returns
Standards are getting stricter...here's what you need to know.
December 19, 2005: 3:31 PM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist
Where to get the hottest holiday gadgets
Xbox 360s and iPods are in high demand, but for the patient (and wealthy), the goods can be yours.(Full story.)

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - This year gift returns are gonna be brutal. So you better be sure mom likes that new digital camera. This year you can expect more complicated, restricted and complicated return policies, according to Edgar Dworsky of the consumer advocacy Web site Consumer World.

In today's 5 Tips we're going to give you the tools to get the most return out of your unwanted holiday booty.

1. Watch your return history

When you make a return at a store, you may have another worry...your return history. More than a dozen retailers, including Express, KB Toys and Staples, use an outside tracking system to keep tabs on your returns.

The tracking system, called The Return Exchange, monitors how many returns you have had at a particular store, the dollar amount of your returns, and whether you had a receipt.

The system is able to send an alert to the cashier that will reject your return. The criteria for rejection is very vague, says Beth McConnell of Pennsylvania's Public Interest Research Group. "And often it's hard to tell if a store even uses this system," she says. "I have never seen any signs."

And that's not surprising. Staples, for example, does not post any information about it's use of Return Exchange, according to the company. Other stores have their own system for tracking returns. These stores include Home Depot, Costco, Wal-Mart. To find out if you're being tracked, ask a sales person if the store uses a return authorization system.

If you're asked to present a drivers' license or other identification when you take back your stuff, that's a likely sign your return history is being recorded. You can also call the Return Exchange and find out if they have a file on you. That number is 800-652-2331.

2. Restocking fees expanding

Restocking fees -- those charges that you'll pay if you return electronic products used or opened -- are nothing new. But instead of applying almost solely to electronic equipment, these restocking fees may be coming to a department store near you.

Two months ago, Sears began to charge a 15 percent restocking fee to things like auto products, home-improvement items, home appliances and lawn and garden merchandise.

Retailers like Best Buy, Circuit City and Target have had restocking fees from 10 percent to 15 percent. With more retailers expanding their restocking fees, you'll want to make extra sure that you want to keep your present before you go tearing into it.

But keep in mind, if your product is defective, you shouldn't have to pay any kind of restocking fee if you have to return it. If you're looking for stores that don't charge restocking fees or that have generous return policies, Costco is a good place to look.

3. Return deadlines in flux

We're certainly not living in the "30 days or your money back" world. Depending on the kind of gift you buy, you may have to return your gift in as little as 2 weeks.

Computers and other electronic merchandise have a shorter shelf-life and you'll have to return them to the store more quickly. With other merchandise, you may have up to 30 days to return your item.

It's important to check the dates before you buy the product. Keep in mind that at some stores, the clock for returns doesn't start ticking until Dec. 24 instead of when you bought the product. Best Buy for example treats all purchases made between Nov. 1st and Dec. 24th as if they were bought on the 24th. Here are some examples of some stores deadlines:

Circuit City: Purchases made between Nov. 25 and Dec. 25 can be returned by Jan. 9 or within 30 days of sale date (whichever is longer)

Computers, camcorders and other electronic equipment can be returned by Jan. 9 or within 14 days of sale date.

Amazon.com: gifts shipped between November 1, 2005 and December 31, 2005 may be returned until January 31

Wal-Mart: 90 days on most merchandise, Computer hardware and software must be returned within 15 days of receipt and computer accessories must be returned within 45 days.

4. Don't break the seal

Another no-no is to tear in to your presents. If you think you may want to return that new CD, don't open it. Barnes and Noble will reject any CDs or DVDs without the wrapper. Amazon will take off 50 percent of the returned items' price if a software package or DVD is opened.

If you want to returned opened software at Staples, you will only be able to get the same title and version.

5. Keep those receipts

The best way to put up a fight is to have the receipt with you. If you're giving a gift, ask for the gift receipt. If you don't have your receipt, your return rights are severely limited or non-existent. If you don't have a receipt, you may have to settle for an exchange or a store credit.

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For all the latest top 5 Tips columns, click here.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.com.  Top of page


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