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Shop wisely for happy returns

Want to take the pain out of Christmas returns? Do a little reconnaissance before you shop, and set aside one envelope for all your holiday receipts.

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For retailers, "returns are part of business," says Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations for the National Retail Federation. "Retailers plan for returns, and they expect it. It's part of doing business."

If you adopt the same attitude, you can shop smart. Before you even hit the cash register with your gifts, check that return policy. Can your gift recipients bring the item back? How much time will they have to return?

"Understand the return policies when you make your purchase," says Butler. "If it's not posted on the sign, ask."

The more time stores give you, the easier it is to fit returns into your schedule. Bare minimum: "at least two weeks after Christmas," says Kristina Matisic, co-author of "The Shopping Bags: Tips, Tricks and Inside Information to Make You A Savvy Shopper."

Many retailers are willing to relax return policies at the holidays. Matisic recently negotiated for a longer return window. "In my case, they wrote a new date on the gift receipt," she says.

"The last thing any of us want to do is go back into the stores right after Christmas," Matisic says. "I want something in January."

Will returns earn a store credit, a gift card or cash? Will they earn full value or just what the item is worth at the after-holiday, mark-down sale price?

That's especially important if you're buying seasonal merchandise or something on clearance. "Sometimes all sales are final," says Carol Schroeder, co-owner of Orange Tree Imports in Madison, Wis., and author of "Specialty Shop Retailing." And if it's an item that the store will mark down after the holiday, they may chose to offer only the value of the item at the time it's returned.

"I tend not to buy things on sale when I'm buying a gift, because it can make it more difficult to return," says Matisic. "Many sale items are final sales."

If the existing return policy doesn't suit you, negotiate for what you need, get it in writing on the receipt, and have the clerk sign it.

Sometimes the policy will vary with the item. Many times, electronics either can't be returned at all or there might be a restocking fee charged when you make the return. Giving electronics? Be extra careful and ask how returns work, says Butler. If you're not comfortable with the answer, think about a different item or even a gift card.

You may be able to get around restocking fees if the box hasn't been opened, he says. (So if you receive something you think you might return, keep that in mind.)

"I think all these things are negotiable, and it never hurts to ask," says Matisic. Electronic goods are so competitive, pricewise, that one store might be willing to match a competitor's more flexible return policy, she says. If the store down the street isn't charging a restocking fee, use that as a bargaining chip.

To make returns easier, or just less embarrassing, for your friends and family, don't use those upscale retail boxes for discount store gifts. That strategy can unravel faster than a cheap sweater if your sweetie needs to return or exchange the item. Stick with a generic box or one that matches the actual store.

Next: Online shopping, online returning ...
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