10 tips to simplify online shopping returns


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Online shopping has gone mainstream. Americans spent almost $103 billion at online retailers from October through December 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s up 14 percent from the previous year.

But online returns can be a hassle. Take Kendal Perez, who took a chance on some assorted glassware at a Crate & Barrel online sale. It was Black Friday, so shipping was free. But when she needed to return a couple of pieces, the shipping costs threatened to gut what she’d saved on the bargain. C&B allowed in-store returns, but the nearest store was at least an hour away from her home.

Suddenly that smart buy looked like a big mistake.

A friend suggested Perez call customer service and explain her situation. “They sent an email with a prepaid shipping label,” Perez recalls. She dropped off the box at a local shipping store, and that was it. No extra charges — and no two-hour-plus round trip for a return.

With a little expert advice and some foresight, your online returns can get a lot simpler, too. Here are 10 tips to make online returns cheaper and easier:

1. Read the retailer’s return policy.

“Is there a return policy at all?” asks Ben Glaser, editor with comparison shopping site DealNews.com. Some stores can have one policy for most items and a different policy for special merchandise such as electronics, food or intimate apparel, he says. Likewise, sometimes sale or clearance items can’t be returned. Be very careful if that’s what you’re buying.

Different items are subject to different return fees, too. “There’s not just one policy for whatever you throw in the cart,” says Frank DeBlasi, CEO of HooplaDoopla.com, a bargain-shopping site.

Find out if your purchase might be subject to a restocking fee. That fee can run from a few percent to 25 percent. “I’m seeing them less and less,” says Glaser. “But it’s something you have to watch out for.”

Some stores will also levy a “handling fee,” says Michelle Madhok, founder and CEO of SheFinds.com, a bargainista shopping blog. Like a restocking fee, “That’s also money you don’t see again.”

2. Find out who pays for shipping.

Some stores, including Gap, will include a free return postage label in the box with your order, while others, including L.L. Bean, let you print one out if you need it, says Glaser.

If return shipping isn’t free, some online retailers will provide the labels — if you pay postage. Still others leave you to navigate returns on your own.

So, before you click “buy,” know what will happen if that item isn’t what you expected, says Perez, a spokeswoman for CouponSherpa.com, a site that aggregates coupons and special offers.

3. Ask whether returns are free.

Don’t feel bad for asking if returns are free. “This is a big question online,” Glaser says.

More online retailers are offering free return shipping. Among them are Apple, Athleta, Costco, Gap, Nordstrom, Target and Zappos.

Online stores that offer free return shipping typically don’t require that you spend a certain amount to use that perk, says Perez. Especially with items such as clothing, “If you have to pay to send it back, it feels like you have to pay to try something on,” says Perez.

But sometimes free return shipping is tied to what you buy, says DeBlasi. “Products with high profit margins usually waive the shipping fee,” he says.

4. See if you can return items locally.

The big trend with online retailers who have brick-and-mortar stores is to buy online and return to the store.

If return shipping isn’t free, find out if you can return it to the retailer’s physical store if one is nearby, says Glaser. Eighty-five percent of stores offer this in-store return option, according to a 2015 report by the National Retail Federation.

But sometimes what should be a seamless transaction turns out to be anything but. Glaser had an ugly surprise when he purchased clothing from a popular retailer’s online factory outlet site. “I went to return it to the (local) store, and they said, ‘No, we can’t take that.'”

One free alternative some stores are promoting is a ship-to-store option, says DeBlasi, who often uses this service. Retailers ship the item free to the local store, where you pick it up. And returns are free because you can always take it back to the store.

5. Read user reviews.

Online shopping is one place where those snarky online comments can be helpful. On one site, a shopper complained that the furniture he ordered months earlier hadn’t held up well. The store declined a return in favor of a coupon for his next purchase. His response: “Really? They want me to buy something else?”

When you want to gauge how easy an online retailer makes returns, check the consumer reviews, says DeBlasi. “Look for consumer complaints about returns and why they didn’t get their money back.”

6. Use credit card benefits.

“Definitely use a credit card,” says Madhok. According to a December 2016 survey by CreditCards.com, 26 percent of credit cards issued in the U.S. offer return protection, essentially reimbursing you if you need to return something and the store won’t take back the item. Some credit cards also provide protection if the return shipment goes missing.

Whenever you shop online, Glaser recommends credit cards over store cards or gift cards. “They’re a neutral third-man in the transaction” should an issue arise, he says. If you pay with a debit card, the cash is gone until the retailer processes your return.

In addition, some card processors, such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover, will offer “return extension.” Provided you meet the retailers’ other requirements, they’ll extend the return window to as much as 60 or 90 days.

7. Mark your calendar.

No one likes to keep something they don’t like just because they missed the return deadline. Mark your calendar, and if you’re using an electronic version, set an alert.

The window for online returns can be anywhere from 14 to 90 days. Some stores, like Zappos, give you up to a year to return items. Others, like Athleta, don’t put a clock on it.

Ask when that clock starts on returns. An online store may give you two weeks to return an item, but it could start counting when you click “buy” or when your order is shipped, says Glaser. By the time you open that box, you may not have much time for a return. For that reason, “two weeks is not great,” he says. “A month is standard.”

You may not be bound by the calendar, either. “Most of the rules aren’t hard and fast,” says Madhok. “A lot of times, (retailers) want to make you happy.”

8. Keep a record.

Before you send the item back, snap a picture of the shipping label and the box. “Keep that information and track that return,” Perez recommends.

If you don’t have time to drop off the item at the shipping store or post office, make an appointment to have the shipper pick it up. If you put it on your porch or in a busy hallway and the package goes missing, getting your money back on a return might be a tough, says Perez.

9. Consider a third-party online shopping service.

Shop through a third-party online shopping service, such as ShopRunner, “that gives free shipping and free returns,” says Madhok. To make a free return, all you have to do is print out a label. You should, however, have a subscription, and the online store has to partner with the service.

Amazon Prime does the same thing, but it’s site-specific and applies only to certain items. Third-party or add-on services can cost extra. So, it may be worth it only if you’re a regular online shopper, says DeBlasi. An Amazon Prime subscription is $99 annually, while ShopRunner is $79 a year (and free with American Express cards).

PayPal offers another option. It offers users free return shipping on up to 12 purchases a year and covers shipping costs of up to $30 each time.

10. Ask for what you want.

Sometimes, making an online return easy just comes down to asking for what you need.

Perez learned that opting for a good buy online doesn’t mean forgoing returns. Plus, if your situation is atypical, some online retailers will work with you. “The one thing I gleaned from the Crate & Barrel story is you can always ask,” she says. Online retailers “are customer service oriented.”

5 big U.S. retailers’ online return policies


Free shipping? Yes, on eligible products fulfilled by Amazon (details here)

Deadline for returns: In most cases, 30 days from receiving item. Some items have different policies.

Restocking fee: Depends on the product. More here.

How to make a return: Visit “return items you ordered,” complete form and print out prepaid shipping label. You also can use Amazon Lockers. Some items (plants, wine) can’t be returned (list here.)

Make it easy: Reuse original packaging and include printout of return request form.

Return to store: N/A


Free shipping? Yes, when Walmart has made an error.

Deadline for returns: 90 days from receiving most items. Some electronics: 15 days (details here.)

Restocking fee: No

How to make a return: Fill out online return form and print prepaid label. Insure the package: Walmart won’t make refunds or returns on items it doesn’t receive (details here.)

Make it easy: Return in original packaging, including packing slip (or printout of receipt.)

Return to store: Yes


Free shipping? Yes

Deadline for returns: 14 days from receiving an item.

Restocking fee: No

How to make a return: Fill out online return request and print free, prepaid shipping label. Some items can’t be returned – installed/opened software, Apple Store gift cards, etc. (details here.)

Make it easy: Include packaging, cords, adapters and documentation included when you received it.

Return to store: Yes, if purchased from Apple.com


Free shipping? Yes

Deadline for returns: Most things: Return anytime. Clock begins at purchase (details and exceptions here.)

Restocking fee: No

How to make a return: You can return an online purchase for any reason at no charge. Staples pays for return postage and provides the label.

Make it easy: Return items in salable condition in original packaging, including bar code, manuals, parts and receipt/packing slip.

Return to store: Yes


Free shipping? Yes

Deadline for returns: General merchandise: free and within one year of purchase.

Restocking fee: Select items apply (details here.)

How to make a return: Visit this page to print, pack and ship a return.

Make it easy: Follow this guide; it includes printing pre-addressed shipping label.

Return to store: Yes

See related: In-car payments: A wallet that’s truly mobile, Don’t be fooled by fake shopping apps, Video: 5 ways to protect yourself while shopping online

Editor’s note: This story, “10 tips to simplify online shopping returns” originally was posted on CreditCards.com.