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8 ways to reduce return hassles

Because of increasing fraud associated with returning store merchandise, stores are limiting their return policies, say retail experts.

"The honest among us are paying the price for the dishonest," says Richard Feinberg, a professor of retail management at Purdue University.

This season, shoppers who try to return their purchases will face more restocking fees, store credits instead of cash and shortened return periods. But buyers can take steps to protect themselves.

8 steps to satisfaction
These tips won't lead to a peak retail experience, but they should at least minimize irritating encounters with sales clerks.
1. Look beyond the signs for the return policy
2. Go with gift cards
3. Use credit cards to protect purchases
4. Treat receipts like cash
5. Ask for exactly what you want
6. Play nice
7. Get to the boss without bypassing the clerk
8. Know your next step

1. Look beyond the signs for the return policy
Avoid surprises by asking about return guidelines upfront. "The time to think about returning a product is before you buy it," says T. Scott Gross, a customer service expert and co-author of "When Customers Talk."

Before paying for an item, read the written return notices that are hanging on signs in the store. Ask questions if those notices don't address a particular concern. For example, the sign might not say anything about restocking fees, but the store may still charge the shopper 15 percent of the purchase price to restock electronic returns. Or the store might accept a return, but if the product has gone on sale, the consumer may only be credited for the amount of the sale price.

"If a clerk tells you information about a return policy that is not verified in writing, record the information yourself," says Bettye Banks, senior vice president of education for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Dallas. "Write down the name of the person, the date, the time of the conversation, your question and their response," she says. Even better, ask the clerk to write their response on your receipt. In either case, if you have a future dispute, you can prove to the store that you received your information from a legitimate source.

2. Go with gift cards
"One of the best ways to eliminate returned gift (hassles) is to give gift cards," say Gross. "Last year, over 50 percent of holiday givers gave at least one person a gift card."

Feinberg says that this trend is good for the consumer. "The gift card is partly the effect of more stringent return policies," he says. "If I want to give a gift to a person, but I don't want them to return it (and deal with potential hassles), then I can give them a gift card. It solves the problem, because people are not likely to return an item that they picked out for themselves."

People who receive gift cards during the holidays get an added benefit. "That $50 gift card is worth more than $50 because of the increased sales that stores have after the holidays," says Feinberg. The item that was $50 in December might cost $40 in January.

Gift cards do have limitations, though they are probably more lenient than a store's return policy restrictions. If you receive a card, read the fine print to see if it needs to be registered in order to process a claim if it's lost. Also, check for an expiration date.

Next: "they do offer a tremendous amount of protection. ..."
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