Many unhappy returns: Customers face tighter return policies

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Shoppers wanting to return those unwanted gifts to stores may be in for some irritating surprises this week as they face stores with increasingly restrictive return policies, including unexpected restocking fees, fewer days to return items and checking a "blacklist" of "serial returners" prior to a refund.

Some stores use a computer database to track customer returns, while retailers like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble reportedly use their own proprietary systems.

Other stores are using increasingly strict but conventional means to curb returns. Items such as computers, digital cameras and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, shortened returned periods or no refund at all.

For example, in October, Sears became the first major department store to introduce a broad 15 percent restocking fee on selected home appliances, electronics, home improvements, household goods, lawn and garden equipment and automotive items not returned unused with full packaging.

Ben Cooper, operations manager at the Sears Grand in Cape Girardeau, said they also implemented a tracking system -- using driver's license numbers -- three months ago that lets them know when a customer has returned items three times without a proper receipt.

After a third time, the register prints out the return saying it cannot be authorized. Those customers are given an 800 number to call corporate offices to explain why they want to return the items.

Cooper said normal returns are made the same way the customer made the purchase. If they paid cash, they're given back cash. The amount can be credited to their credit cards or put back on gift cards.

Target, meanwhile, offers no returns without a receipt, but will search their system for one. Jen Cecich, a senior team leader at the Cape Girardeau Target store, said they have a 90-day return policy with a receipt or a gift receipt. A gift receipt is a second receipt that doesn't show the price, but includes a bar code for scanning.

J.C. Penney requires special-occasion dresses to be returned with the "return tag" still in place. This thwarts shoppers from "renting" dresses for one-time wearing.

"If it's dirty and worn, we don't want it back," said Penney's manager Gary McDowell. "That's a judgment call on our part. But we don't have a serious problem with it here. I understand the city stores have a big problem with that, though."

McDowell said on other returns, if customers have a receipt or gift receipt, they can get cash, credit or gift card. Penney's has no return time-limit policy, he said.

Kohl's also has no deadline with a receipt, said manager Rodney Hall. But Hall said Kohl's also tracks return receipts. Excessive returns are flagged and Kohl's also then requires the customer to contact the corporate office.

At Wal-Mart, there is a 90-day limit for returns for most items. Personal computers, however, can only be returned for 15 days, cameras must be returned within 30 days and PC accessories must be returned within 45 days.

At Famous Barr in Cape Girardeau, manager Sharon Ebersohl said they like to have tags left on the items. If there are no tags on the item, she said they try to find a like item to give the customer. They also have no time limit, but Ebersohl before six months is up is ideal.

Consumer rights vary from state to state with respect to product returns. Generally speaking, a store can set up any return policy it wants, whether it is "all sales final," "merchandise credit only" or "all returns in 30 days." Most states require the policy to be clearly disclosed to the buyer prior to purchase.

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