Shopping on the Internet sure made holiday gift-giving
a whole lot easier, but when it comes to returns, it's not as easy
as a click of the mouse.
Online spending for the holiday season increased 25
percent in 2004 to $23.2 billion, up $4.7 billion from 2003, not
including online travel purchases, according to The eSpending Report
from Goldman Sachs, Harris Interactive and Nielsen//NetRatings.
That means the
chances are great that you were the sender or recipient of at least one item that
was purchased via an online store.
If so, and you're unhappy
with something such as the size, color or model, the first thing to do is check
the store's return policy. If you were the purchaser, this is something you should
have checked before you made the purchase. But if you're on the receiving end
and want to make the return yourself, that's your starting point.
Consumers should not always be dazzled by saving a few dollars, but should go
with somebody who's a trusted name, says Patti Freeman Evans, a retail analyst
with Jupiter Research. "It's more likely the return will go easier."
Most online retailers feature a return policy prominently on their
Web sites, she says. If not, you probably don't want to do business with it. If
you purchase items at an online superstore that features items from a variety
of different retailers, you might have to check the originating retailer's return
policy rather than that of the superstore site. Again, the superstore's return
policy should indicate this.
Before you start hunting for a box,
packing material and super-strong tape, here are several questions you should
Is time on your side? One
of the first things you should look for is the time limit for returns. For the
holiday season, some retailers are giving consumers additional time to return
items since they know people like to shop for gifts in advance.
example, Amazon.com normally allows consumers to return items within 30 days of
delivery. However, for the holidays, it is allowing returns until Jan. 31, 2005.
Such a policy shows a retailer that is tuned into the needs of its customers.
According to Freeman Evans, more retailers seem to be getting the message. "Consumers
say it is less of an issue," she says. "It still is one of the top issues,
but it has reduced dramatically over the last three years."
In 2002, Jupiter Research found, 43 percent of consumers said
returning items was one of their biggest concerns about online shopping. Today,
only 35 percent of people surveyed say it is a big concern.
Is it worth the expense? One of the biggest peeves
consumers have is that most online retailers will only refund the cost of the
item and not the cost of shipping. If you have to ship an item back, not only
aren't you reimbursed for the original shipping fees, but you have to pay the
shipping fees associated with returning the item. Angie Pace Kirk of Baltimore,
Md., was surprised to find that she would not be reimbursed for the shipping costs
incurred when she purchased a comforter online. After the comforter arrived in
the mail, Kirk was unhappy with its appearance.
shipping the only answer? Since she had purchased the comforter from an
online store that had a brick-and-mortar counterpart nearby, Kirk returned the
comforter to the local store, which gladly accepted the comforter and gave her
a full refund for its price. But it would not reimburse her for the shipping costs.
"I was so annoyed by that that I haven't bought anything online since,"
she says. According to Jupiter Research, 30 percent of online retailers allow
consumers to take gifts back to a physical location, which some people prefer.
Will the retailer pay? Retailers
sometimes will pay for the shipping costs -- usually if you're returning the item
because the retailer was at fault for some reason. For example, if you purchase
a set of glasses and they show up at your door broken or one is missing, chances
are the retailer will either refund all of your money, including the shipping
costs, or it will send you a new set free of all charges.
to the rules? Another thing to take note of when eyeing the return policy
is whether there are any exceptions to the policy. Sometimes retailers will not
accept an item if it has been used or if it is not returned in its original packaging.
You might also need to return certain receipts or a packing slip to prove when
the item was delivered. Since most people don't want gifts to include receipts
that reveal the price they paid for the gifts, the larger online retailers tend
to include full gift delivery receipts in the packaging, says Freeman Evans. These
are generally all consumers need to include with the gift when returning it in
order to receive credit or an exchange.
there hidden fees? While the practice is not as common today as it once
was, some smaller retailers might charge restocking fees. These are penalties
for returning items in which consumers will get a refund, minus a small percentage
that the retailer claims must cover the cost of restocking the item.
Holmes is a freelance writer based in Maryland.