Business Columns & Blogs

David Lazarus: You’ve bought it; now what about returning it?

The lines can get long waiting to return a gift after Christmas.
The lines can get long waiting to return a gift after Christmas. Fresno Bee file

I am here to offer some tips on two of the big Rs of the holiday shopping season: rebates and returns.

“There’s a lot of variability with how manufacturers and retailers handle this,” said Karl Quist, president of PriceBlink, an online price-comparison tool. “It reflects different philosophies of customer service.”

As in, some businesses treat people fairly and generously, and some don’t.

Rebates are one of those things that sound a lot better than they are. That’s intentional.

In theory, these cash-back offers should be painless, with products being marked down or money refunded at the register. That does happen, but it’s not the norm.

The more common approach is for everything to be done by mail – old-school snail-mail, not email. Needless to say, it’s occurred to more than a few manufacturers that many people won’t go through the hassle.

The most frequently cited figure online is that 40 percent to 60 percent of rebates go unredeemed. Just in case, though, manufacturers often make the process unnecessarily cumbersome by requiring lots of documentation to get the rebate wheels spinning.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the required documentation typically includes the original sales receipt, the bar code (aka the universal product code) from the box, the rebate form and your contact information.

“In most cases, this paperwork must be sent to the manufacturer or retailer within 30 days of the purchase,” the agency says. “Consumers generally receive their rebates up to 12 weeks later.”

Note that word: “Generally.” Sometimes that promised rebate fails to materialize. This is when consumers have to start being persistent and jumping through hoops.

Be prepared. Always make copies of all rebate paperwork before mailing it off. The last thing you want is for a smug service rep to say that if you can’t produce your rebate form or bar code, you’re out of luck.

To really cover yourself, use your smartphone to take a picture of each document, as well as the envelope you’re mailing them in. Heck, even take a selfie of yourself handing it to a Postal Service worker. The more proof you can muster in a rebate dispute, the better.

If a company still won’t honor its agreement, you’ll have to escalate things. Contact the FTC and the state attorney general’s office.

That won’t guarantee a satisfactory outcome, but it keeps the heat turned up.

As a last resort, consider dragging the offending manufacturer into small claims court. It’s not as hard as you might think. The online legal site Nolo.com offers some handy advice for going down this path.

Returning an unwanted item also can require a good deal of stamina. It all depends on the merchant.

“Stay calm,” advised Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising for Offers.com, a discount-focused website. The holidays are just as stressful for store workers as they are for shoppers, he noted.

“A stressed associate is more likely to help a calm and considerate customer than a rude one,” Schaffer said.

Some retailers make returns a breeze – you bring in the item, hand it over, show a receipt, get your money back. No questions asked. I try to patronize such businesses as much as possible. They clearly want me as a return customer.

I once brought back a leather jacket to an Eddie Bauer outlet. I’d purchased it in another city several years earlier but never really took to it. Bauer gave me a full refund. Just like that.

L.L. Bean is also good in this regard, as are Nordstrom, REI and Costco. Some open-minded retailers say you can return an unwanted good any time you choose, for any reason, while some might give you up to a year. Ask about the return policy when you make a purchase.

Then there are merchants that seem to deliberately play rough. The website GOBankingRates recently released its annual survey of return policies. It called clothing store Forever 21’s policy “the worst of the retailers surveyed.”

“Forever 21 only allows 21 days for returns, and purchases can only be exchanged for other items or refunded in store credit, not in the original form of payment,” the site said. “Items must also be unworn, unwashed and unused with tags still attached.”

No one at Forever 21 responded to my request for comment.

“Return policies should be a big consideration for holiday shoppers,” said Elyssa Kirkham, who helped conduct the GOBankingRates study. “Two-thirds of people return at least one holiday gift.”

Again, ask in advance about a retailer’s return policy. If you think the playing field isn’t level, walk away. There are probably plenty of other merchants that have the same or similar products and that won’t make you feel like a chump if you have second thoughts.

To be safe, always hang on to your receipts for the big stuff – anything that costs more than $100, say. I toss them into a shoe box and sleep better at night knowing that if I need a receipt for something, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to find it.

And one last tip from Schaffer at Offers.com: “If an item is defective, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He answers consumer questions. Contact him: david.lazarus@latimes.com or @Davidlaz. Read more by Lazarus at fblinks.com/laz.

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