Stores tighten policies on bringing back merchandise, frustrating consumers

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 10, 2003 at 11:59 p.m.

NEW YORK (AP) - Although the holiday season is now just a memory, consumers are still going back to stores and malls, expecting to return the clothes that didn't fit and the toys the kids hated.

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Salima Silverman works the return counter at the Target store in Naples on Thursday morning, Dec. 26, 2002. Shoppers packed the store to return gifts and take advantage of sales including 50 percent off on Christmas items. A number of stores, including Gap, Target Stores, and Saks Fifth Avenue, have tightened once-liberal return policies over the past year, demanding original receipts, offering stricter time limitations or even asking for identification.

(AP Photo/Naples Daily News, Lisa Krantz)

But many people hoping to get their money back or exchange merchandise have found it's harder than they thought, even impossible. Stores including Gap, Target and Saks Fifth Avenue have tightened once-liberal return policies and are now demanding original receipts, offering stricter time limitations and asking for identification.

Retailers say their tougher policies ultimately benefit the consumer by cutting down on fraudulent returns. But having to deal with the knotty rules of returning, which not only vary from merchant to merchant but across various product categories, is giving consumers a headache.

Bob Silber, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is now stuck with a $60 computer mouse, a gift rejected by a family member. When Silber went back to CompUSA right after Christmas and tried to exchange it, the store manager refused because the customer had missed the 14-day return deadline.

"I was a good customer. I purchased computers there," Silber said. "I'm not going back."

Abigail Carr, of Manhattan, ended up giving away a Winnie the Pooh video her brother-in-law purchased at Toys "R" Us for her son. She wanted an exchange or credit, but didn't have a receipt, which, company spokeswoman Susan McLaughlin noted, is required for videos and electronic games.

"I'm probably going to shop at smaller stores," Carr grumbled, noting that she was too embarrassed to go back to her relative to ask for the receipt.

Susan Whyte Simon thought getting a refund for a sweater her mother-in-law gave her from Banana Republic would be a cinch, since she had a gift receipt and was returning it at the same store from which it was purchased. She was wrong.

Simon was told she needed the original receipt for a refund. Now, weeks after Christmas, her mother-in-law still hasn't found the receipt.

"I think it is strange to give you a gift receipt when it isn't really a receipt," the 47-year-old Rockville, Md., resident said.

Claudia Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Banana Republic, confirmed that gift receipts at Banana Republic allow only for exchanges and merchandise credits.

Ed Keller, chief executive of RoperASW, a New York-based market research, believes strict return policies are short-sighted.

"Consumers want it all these days," he said. "They're looking for discounts. They're looking for convenience, and for customer service. If one retailer doesn't treat them well, they can go elsewhere."

With that possibility in mind, Circuit City Stores Inc. is using its relatively flexible return policy as a competitive edge. For products purchased in November and December, customers need to return the item by Jan. 31 to get an exchange or return, provided they have a receipt.

Last April, Circuit City dropped its 15 percent re-stocking fee, which was applied to personal computers and related accessories returned after being opened.

Catalog retailer L.L. Bean Inc. continues to have no time restrictions on returns, although receipts are preferred, according to Rich Donaldson, a company spokesman said.

Still, most stores are enforcing tougher policies.

Target was one of the first major retailers to tighten its policies, in November 2001, when it began enforcing an already written rule that a receipt was needed for a return. It also limited the time frame for returns to 90 days, according to Douglas Kline, a company spokesman. Target will exchange some merchandise without a receipt, but on very limited basis.

At Gap stores, one of the changes made was that customers must present valid identification for all returns and exchanges without an original sales receipt. But now Gap offers customers cash for returns on merchandise originally paid for by check, after a five-day waiting period.

At Gap's Old Navy stores, customers who don't have receipts can only exchange merchandise for the exact items (changes in color or size are allowed). They may also opt for store credit by mail for the current selling price.

And Saks Fifth Avenue last year imposed a 60-day limit for returns of items to be exchanged, replaced or credited at the purchase price. After 60 days, the store will credit the customer based on the merchandise's current selling price.

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