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Shop wisely for happy returns
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It pays to have a system
To simplify, double up on your receipts when you shop. Get gift receipts and regular receipts for each item (a gift receipt is similar to the original but without the prices).

Keep the gift slips with the gifts, and keep your own regular receipts in an envelope marked "holiday gift receipts," says Butler. That way, if you have to return something, you have all the paperwork in one place.

When you give someone the gift, let them know that the gift receipt is in the box, just in case they need to make a quick exchange, and to prevent them from throwing it away by accident, he says.

And if you lose that all-important receipt? Don't panic. Call the store and find out what, if anything, you can bring to document your purchase. Given a little advance notice, sometimes retailers can track down their copies of the receipt, says Butler.

Online shopping, online returning
Buying online is easy. Sometimes returning items you've bought online is a little more complicated than point and click. One way to make it easier: Buy from stores that also have regular retail locations.

That way you can buy online, but you (or your gift recipient) has the option of returning items to the store, says Matisic.

You can also elect to shop on sites that offer free return shipping, says Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "Thepurplebook: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping."

Before you buy, find out what happens if someone returns a gift. Will they get a credit? Will the site credit your card? And does the site have a customer service telephone number in case you or a gift recipient has a problem or question?

Timing is even more critical when it comes to buying online, because you have to allow for shipping. "You want to see a fair amount of time from the point the person actually receives the merchandise to when they have to return it," says Mendelsohn. Her optimum: 14 days or more.

Look at the whole site, not just the gift you're buying. If your loved one's taste doesn't match your own, are there other items on this site that might appeal? This is one instance where larger sites with more types of merchandise might have an edge over smaller, specialty-store sites, says Mendelsohn.

When shopping online:

  • Look for a secure locked server to protect your financial information. And always use a credit card, not a debit card.
  • Hit "print" before you submit your order. That will give you an itemized list of everything you've purchased and when.
  • If the boxes are coming to you first (or if you're the recipient), "keep the packaging materials," says Mendelsohn. Some retailers will include bar codes or stickers on the boxes or plastic bags that come with the items. Include them with returns.
  • Save a copy of the packing list. It can act as a receipt if you need it, says Mendelsohn.

Timing and attitude
What do shoppers hate most about returns? The thousands of other shoppers out doing the same thing. So this year, be smart about it.

"I would avoid making the return the first couple of days after Christmas," says Schroeder. The closer you get to the new year, the more likely you can "save yourself a whole lot of standing in line."

On the flip side, "the longer you wait, the less likely sizes and colors will be available," says Butler.

When you make the returns, ask for exactly what you want. And be prepared to ask several times if necessary. "Don't rant and rave if it's not going your way," says Matisic. "The key is to speak to the right person who has the authority to make the decision to grant you what you want."

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.'s corrections policy-- Posted: Dec. 17, 2005
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