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6 tips for returning e-gifts

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.

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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 ask:

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.

For example, 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.

Is 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.

Exceptions 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.

Are 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.

Tamara Holmes is a freelance writer based in Maryland.


-- Posted: Jan. 7, 2005

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