Simplify shopping: Navigate store return policies
by Staci Giordullo
Linda Taylor couldn't wait for the new bed she purchased at Macy's for more than $1,000 to be delivered to her Decatur, Ga., home. "I'm a short woman and I wanted a very low profile box spring, and that's what they had displayed in their store," says the Angie's List member. "It was perfect."
However, she says the bed delivered to her home was not. "It's a totally different box spring, and the frame was so bent the bed rocked like a chair," she says. The store offered to fix the mistake, but told Taylor there would be a 20-percent restocking fee and a $75 delivery fee.
"They couldn't guarantee the mattress would fit [on the box spring], so if I wasn't happy with it, there was no other form of recourse," she says. Macy's didn't respond to requests for comment.
Navigating a store's return or exchange policy can be frustrating for shoppers. More than 30 percent of Angie's List members responding to a recent online poll say they've experienced problems while returning an item either at a store or online.
The biggest gripes: receiving store credit instead of cash and having too little time to return an item.
Finding a balance
Stores say they're just trying to safeguard their bottom line. The National Retail Federation estimates the industry will lose $9.6 billion this year in return fraud.
"Retailers are constantly trying to fine-tune return policies to create guidelines that honest customers can live with and dishonest people can't get around," says Joe LaRocca, senior asset protection advisor for NRF. "In many cases, people take advantage of lenient return policies by stealing large quantities of merchandise and returning."
In fact, the NRF says 93 percent of retailers had stolen merchandise returned to their stores in 2009, up from 89 percent in 2008.
Nearly half report that wardrobing — the return of non-defective merchandise like special occasion apparel and certain electronics the buyer used but had no intention of keeping — has been an issue within the past year.
Praise for painless returns
Finding the balance between customer service and fraud protection can be a science all its own. With nearly 1,750 stores, Target is one of the largest retailers in the country and says after surveying 4 million customers, they've found a formula that works well for them.
"Our return policy is very simple and has remained unchanged since 2001," says Target spokeswoman Jenna Reck. "Our guests consistently list our return policy as one of their favorite things about shopping at Target."
Shoppers must return items within 90 days of purchase. If a receipt goes missing, employees can track customers' transactions if they paid by credit or debit card.
"It's quite handy," says Stacy Koontz of Madisonville, Ohio. "I never seem to have the receipt with me when I need to make a return, but I always have my debit card on me. There's never a problem."
For shoppers who pay with cash and don't have a receipt, Target allows up to $70 in merchandise to be returned in one year, offering a gift card equal to the current value of the returned item.
Other stores take a more liberal approach when it comes to returns. "We don't have a formal return policy," says Nordstrom spokesman Colin Johnson. "Just come in if there's an issue and we'll sort it out."
Johnson regales a tale from the '70s of a customer in Alaska who brought in faulty car tires she had purchased from a store recently acquired by Nordstrom. "She wanted cash back and we gave it to her," he says. "It's ultimately about finding a solution for the customer."
Most Americans feel retailers' return policies are equitable, according to a NRF survey. Angie's List members who took our online poll concur — with a few stipulations.
"I'd say most return policies are fair IF they make their policies known to the consumer," says member Alison McKendree of Lynnfield, Mass. "But I also understand that some items should not be returned or are difficult to return."
Oftentimes, stores won't accept opened DVDs, software and similar buys. And many retailers, including Target, charge a restocking fee for electronics.
Time restrictions on returns is a point of contention for member Kathy Rhea of Carson City, Nev. "Some items, like bedding or electronics, take longer to determine if they'll work for you," she says. "Some policies don't give you enough time."
Rhea says she always recommends shopping at Costco due to its customer-friendly policy which includes a full refund and no restocking fee. "That's where I do all of my major shopping," she says. "They have the very best return policy. There's no hassle."
As the shopping season approaches, now is the time to educate yourself on a store's return policy. Although 80 percent of stores plan on keeping the same policy throughout the holidays, some are tightening the reins. Be wary of time restrictions — you most likely won't be able to return the computer you buy on Black Friday after the New Year. And ask for a gift receipt. It'll make your family and friends' lives easier if they need to make an exchange.
Complicated policies bring frustration
A trouble-free return experience is ideal, but not always the norm — especially when it involves electronics. "Best Buy's policy is the worst," Rhea says. "I won't buy anything major from them."
Best Buy's return and exchange program has a number of caveats, as do most large-scale electronic and appliance stores: a return must be done within 14 days for computers, monitors, and cameras or 30 days for all other products; an original receipt and a photo ID are required; there's a restocking fee ranging from 10 to 25 percent for some product categories; and if you paid with cash or check for a high-ticket item, you'll only be refunded the first $250 at the store — the corporate office will send you a check for the remaining balance within 10 business days.
Best Buy declined to be interviewed by Angie's List Magazine regarding its return policy.
When purchasing electronics or appliances, consumers are often presented with the opportunity to buy an extended warranty policy, such as Best Buy's Geek Squad Black Tie Protection.
Daniel Williams of Menifee, Calif., bought the protection for more than $200 and called Best Buy's support team in May after his 3-year-old plasma TV started blacking out. "At the beginning, I felt they were doing their best to resolve the problem," he says. "But as time went on, it seemed like I was getting the runaround."
Williams says the same technician visited his home six times by mid-July to try and fix the television, but he says it wasn't until he posted his frustrations on Best Buy's online forum that he received a call from a supervisor who promised his TV would be replaced.
"This experience has taught me that Best Buy really isn't in the business of customer satisfaction," Williams says.
"I also learned you need to have the employees in the stores completely explain the extended warranty to you, because when they sell you the warranty they explain only the portion that sounds good. Then, when you need to use the warranty, there are a bunch of loopholes they use to get out of replacing your TV. They're sneaky."
An alternative to store warranties
Although experts debate the necessity of extended warranties, as most products don't develop problems within the limited timeframe, Williams says in the future he's apt to buy a warranty from a third-party provider for peace of mind.
These providers tend to cost less for the consumer — up to 40 percent less in some instances — and advertise a quicker claims process. "It's a no-brainer," says Steve Abernethy, president and CEO of SquareTrade, the country's largest independent warranty provider offering coverage on electronics and large appliances.
In business since 1999, Abernethy says his company has fundamentally changed how service is delivered. "We put our money where our mouth is," he says.
"If we're going to fix something, we'll do it quickly. If we're going to deny your claim, we'll tell you quickly and we'll explain why. We've made the process much more transparent for consumers."
Stan Williams of Leslie, Mich., has a Wii gaming console and a GPS system under warranty with SquareTrade and agrees its claims procedure is less complicated than store warranties he's purchased.
"My experience has been completely positive," he says. "It was simply a matter of having the item repaired, and then e-mailing — not faxing or mailing — a copy of the repair order, and receiving 100 percent reimbursement. It was almost too good to be true."
While SquareTrade offers consumers the ability to buy coverage for individual items and customizes the cost of each warranty, competitor GreenUmbrella offers customers the unique option of buying an extended service plan for an unlimited number of home electronics and appliances (excluding cell phones) for $9.95 a month.
"It's not always the easiest thing to explain, but once people get it, their eyes light up," says general manager Jennifer Leuer. "People may spend weeks researching a product they're buying only to have a few seconds to decide if they want to buy the store's warranty or not. We offer an alternative."
Both Abernethy and Leuer say their customers are their greatest advocates when it comes to promoting their services.
"Like the members of Angie's List realize, we believe that word of mouth and customer references are some of the most powerful ways to advertise," Leuer says. "We have online presence, but really rely on the former to spread the word."
Whether it's a warranty program or a return policy, consumers are on their own when it comes to navigating each store's system. Most retail and online outlets post their policies on their website, at store locations and on receipts — although the print may be tiny. If something is still unclear, retailers recommend talking to the customer service department.
That advice offers little comfort for Linda Taylor and her ill-fitting mattress, although she did eventually get the right bed. She admits she didn't pay attention to the return policy before buying.
"No, I didn't do a good job of reading the fine print," she says. "Of course we should — I won't argue with that. The store told me their policy was on the receipt. But, on the other hand, I didn't expect problems."