The Checkout

The Point of No Return

I admit it. I'm a serial returner.

It's not that I can't make up my mind. In fact, by the time I reach the cashier, I've often gone through so much deliberation, I couldn't be more certain of the rightness of my purchase.

But then I get home.

What can I say? I'm a very remorseful shopper.

The good thing about being a serial returner is that I pay more attention to what a store's return policy is before I buy anything there.

The bad thing about being a serial returner is that at some point, apparently, my returning days are going to end.

Because of concerns about fraud, 25 percent of retailers told the National Retail Federation that they planned on restricting their return policies this holiday season.

Holiday shopping requires a whole other level of return policy consciousness. In your attempt to bestow a gift on someone, you may also be saddling them with long lines, restocking fees, or worst of all, a defective product. may have spared us some grief over returns gone awry. In its annual survey of return policies, the site lists holiday return policies for major retailers such as, Target and Circuit City. Consumer Reports' shopping blog has also put together a handy guide to return policies for a few select retailers.

Some highlights from these blogs:

* The Limited, which years ago let you return most merchandise at any time, now has restrictions. You can make five returns within any 90-day period with receipt or for up to $300 without a receipt.

* Amazon now deducts 20 to 50 percent for certain returns made after 30 days.

* will keep any goods returned twice after 30 days and provide no credit for such items.

* applies "special return policies" to some items such as "over-sized TVs" (27 inches and larger), which can't be returned at all. According to CR, you have to inspect the TV before the shipper leaves and refuse damaged goods at that time. After that, you have to deal with the manufacturer and its warranty. "Deal of the Day" and Clearance Store items are returnable only if defective.

It's worth noting that online return policies can differ from those of brick-and-mortar stores. For instance, if you try to return items that were shipped for free, you could be charged for the return, even if the item is defective.

If you try to return a gift at a store and are turned down, it could be because you've landed in the crosshairs of Return Exchange, a company that tracks returns for major retailers such as Express, KayBee Toys and Staples. If you are asked to present a government-issued photo ID when you make a return, chances are Return Exchange has got your digits.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has concerns about retailers outsourcing the collection of personal information. So, if you find yourself unable to make a return, you should call Return Exchange at (800) 652-2331 and request a "return activity report" -- a history of your return transactions, including the date and time you brought back an item, whether you had a receipt and the dollar amount of the return. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse asks that you let them know, too.

Have you ever been denied a return or seen your return activity report? Did it explain why you were turned down?

By Annys Shin |  December 19, 2006; 9:45 AM ET Consumer News
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Once upon a time you could return an item to Wal Mart without a receipt- especially if said item had a lifetime warranty. I remember starting with a $20 backpack, and because it tore and they did not stock the same bag, got an upgrade- which also tore a couple years later due to bad stitching. They used to stand behind their products and being customer friendly. Now, if you try to return a few faulty- cheaply made- items within a set period of time they refuse you- even if they are responsible for selling you an inferior or faulty product. Customer satisfaction brings people back- fortunately for them so do cheaper prices. It has gotten to the point where consumer satisfaction takes a back seat to corporate greed- which is again why all the big Cable and telephone companies could care less where you shop because they all treat you equally rotten and know you have very limited choices. This is just another example of the same type of behavior- tell the customer tough luck and give them no options. If they feel like they were poorly treated they can spend hours of their lives being transferred and disconnected, only to be laughed at or given a very empty apology. Again, the burdon is on the average human being and not the powerful corporations.

Posted by: Chris | December 19, 2006 10:28 AM

If you buy at Walmart, what can you expect? Their motto is always the low price. Not quality, not service.

Posted by: Phila, PA | December 19, 2006 11:03 AM

try returning something to the gap with out a recipt. No exchanges but they will mail you a gift card with the correct ammount in 4-8 weeks. At tleast I think it was the gap

Posted by: Anonymous | December 19, 2006 11:07 AM

Too many returns for no good reason (at least in the company's eyes) is why the return policy is changing. Now, that in itself is a bad business practice. However if you don't have a good reason to return it, why return it? Retail chains are not in the business of try-before-you-buy or renting the product until you decide if you like it. If it is defective, the wrong size, the wrong product, or something of that nature, you won't have a problem returning it.

I have never had a problem returning something nor have I seen my return activity report, but I suspect that I don't have one because I am not a compulsive returner. I return for a good reason.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 19, 2006 11:26 AM

Sometimes it's a lot easier to buy a shirt or skirt that I *think* will fit and try it at home, check that it matches what I bought it to match, etc. than stand in a poorly lit and dingy changing room and try to make a decision. That's why I sometimes return clothing, although I don't shop often so I probably make only a few returns a year.

I've had no problem with returns at Walmart, but maybe the policy has changed recently. My mom buys me a lot of cheap DVDs, some of which I will never watch. I take them back right away. There's no receipt but the price tag is still on them and they are unopened. I get a Walmart gift card and usually spend the money at Walmart for things I actually need. This doesn't hurt Walmart.

Posted by: Kane | December 19, 2006 11:54 AM

This is a short-sighted policy from retailers who can't see beyond this month's financial statement.

Consumers spend more freely if they know that they can return things if they ultimately decide they don't want/need them. Of course, most people don't actually return the unwanted stuff (see: yard sales).

99% of retail is getting people to buy stuff they don't need (or overspend on stuff they do need); damping impulse buying will lose retailers much more money than they'll gain by cracking down on return fraud.

Posted by: Burke | December 19, 2006 12:24 PM

Why does everyone call things they don't like, fraud? With that kind of thinking buying something and returning for no good reason could be considered fraud. This is not fraud. This is business protecting itself from bad consumers.

We all suffer from what the few do.

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 19, 2006 12:58 PM

BabiesRUs and Home Depot have the best return policies -- they'll take everything even if it's been unpacked and won't ask questions. That's one of the main reasons we registered with BabiesRUs vs. Baby Depot (BD has very strickt return policy). For home improvements always go to Home Depot because we can always return the unused stuff back to them (except for custom-tinted paint and cut-up wood, of course).

Posted by: Elle | December 19, 2006 1:13 PM

Nordstrom is excellent, you can return anything, anytime. I had a pair of shoes that broke the second time I wore them, and Nordstrom took them back without a second thought. Zappos also gives you a year to return things.

Barnes and Noble and Borders are the worst. If you ordered from B&N online and return to the store, they will only give you store credit. Borders will not let you return items purchased online, even if it's done through their website instead of amazon's.

Both book stores are susceptible to fraud, however, because they take anything they sell, even without a receipt, and give the returner store credit. And because the brick and mortar stores have higher price points than online stores, returners can often make two to thirty dollars per item.

Macy's and Target salespeople take about 20 minutes to process a single return, because they are poorly trained.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 19, 2006 1:29 PM

Oooohhhh I love Target! When I got married a year ago my husband and I got a bunch of stuff we didn't need or want. Unfortunatly, the lovely people who gave us this precious gift did not give us a gift recipt. So we took it all back to Target and as long as the store had it in stock (or did at one time) they took it back no questions asked. We were given gift cards for our returns, which was fine cause we turned around and spent every last dime in the store for things we needed.
On a side note, has anyone else out there noticed that less and less stores are giving out gift recipts? A few years ago it seemed like they were everywhere and now I never get them.

Posted by: Melissa | December 19, 2006 1:35 PM

Burke Wrote: Consumers spend more freely if they know that they can return things if they ultimately decide they don't want/need them.

You need to define ULTIMATELY - six months? one year?

It is not unreasonable for retailers to place restrictions on returns.

Radioactive Sushi is correct - We all suffer from what the few do.

Posted by: Mall Employee | December 19, 2006 1:37 PM

While I sometimes argue with draconian return policies, I understand after working as a retail consultant that there are a lot of dishonest people out there. It may seem innocent, but many returned items are not salable at the retail price and a lot of this goes to liquidators who pay 10-20 cents on the dollar. In the end, this results in higher prices.

However, what is very insidious is the growing practice by retailers to link sales and return activity across channels (i.e., catalog, online and in store). Best Buy, for example, has a very sophisticated e-commerce platform which is designed to present a disincentive to low value or problematic customers. While they can't charge a higher price, they can restrict specials that would be available other customers. Best Buy and other retailers have learned that there are some customers that are not worth having since the cost of sales often exceeds any revenue and they are willing to take the occasional PR hit.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | December 19, 2006 1:41 PM

I had to return a newly-purchased VCR/DVD player combo to Wal-Mart a couple years ago. It had a defect in it from the start and kept locking up while playing DVDs. I took it back for exchange and by that time the item was on sale. So, I got a new VCR/DVD player and a refund of $12 for the difference in price. Can't beat that. The new player worked just fine and I got an extra $12. I only return appliances if they are defective; I'm not into that return of stuff I don't want after I buy it. That's selfish and cheating the store of out of a sale. Make up your mind before your buy the item.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | December 19, 2006 1:57 PM

For uncensored news please bookmark:

Drug mafia, CIA blamed for sacking of Afghan governor

By Devlin Buckley

In a country flooded with narcotics traffickers and corrupt government officials, one of Afghanistan's few remaining 'clean' governors, Mohammed Daud, has been removed from his position, and many are blaming the drug mafia and the CIA for his abrupt dismissal.

Daud was appointed at the request of the British government in order to oversee Helmand province, the country's largest opium producing region. The former governor of Helmand, Sher Muhammad Akhunzada, whom Daud replaced earlier this year, has been widely implicated in the drug trade.

Contrary to Akhunzada, "British officials regarded Mr Daud as the cleanest governor in Afghanistan and hoped that his extensive experience in development would help to win over Helmand's population," The Times reported.

Last month, however, the British government expressed frustration with the effort, pointing to the fact that Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued to meet with the former governor, Akhunzada. Adding further strain on the situation, Karzai appointed Akhunzada as a senator and made his brother, Amir Muhammad Akhundzada, Daud's deputy.

"The president is undermining his own governor," one British official told The Times. "It doesn't help what we're trying to do."

It would appear U.S. officials, particularly from the Central Intelligence Agency, were influencing Karzai's actions, undercutting the efforts of their British counterparts. Moreover, as The Independent reported, "British sources have blamed pressure from the CIA for President Hamid Karzai's decision to dismiss Mohammed Daud as governor".

"The Americans knew Daud was a main British ally," one official explained to The Independent, "yet they deliberately undermined him and told Karzai to sack him."

The U.S. apparently favors the brother of Daud's predecessor and purported drug lord, Akhunzada.

As The Times reports, "British officials fear that Mr Daud will be replaced by his deputy, Amir Muhammad Akhunzada, the brother of Sher Muhammad Akhunzada. He is thought to have links to the drug trade and has been banned from running in elections because he refuses to disband his personal militia."

"For the moment," as one official told The Times, "before a new governor is named, the governor of Helmand is a drug-dealing warlord who was banned from the elections by the UN for keeping a militia and his connection to narcotics, and with whom the British have said they cannot work. Nice."

Opium from Afghanistan provides more than 90 percent of the world's total supply, funding international drug syndicates with billions of dollars in profits every year.

According to a recent report issued by the United Nations and the World Bank, the U.S.-installed government has established a "complex pyramid of protection and patronage, effectively providing state protection to criminal trafficking activities."

"Around 25 to 30 key traffickers, the majority of them based in southern Afghanistan, control major transactions and transfers, working closely with sponsors in top government and political positions," the report states.

"This year's record harvest of 6,100 tons of opium will generate more than $3 billion in illicit revenue - equivalent to almost half of Afghanistan's GDP," writes Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Profits for drug traffickers downstream," he notes, "will be almost 20 times that amount."

According to Costa, "High-level collusion enables thousands of tons of chemical precursors, needed to produce heroin, to be trucked into the country. Armed convoys transport raw opium around the country unhindered. Sometimes even army and police vehicles are involved. Guns and bribes ensure that the trucks are waved through checkpoints. Opiates flow freely across borders into Iran, Pakistan, and other Central Asian countries."

"There are many cases where honest prosecutors or police chiefs try to do something about corruption, and they say they receive phone calls from very high officials in Kabul saying to leave the people alone," said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan and director of studies and senior fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.

As The Washington Post has plainly summarized, "corruption and alliances formed by Washington and the Afghan government with anti-Taliban tribal chieftains, some of whom are believed to be deeply involved in the trade, [have] undercut the [counter-narcotics] effort."
Devlin Buckley is a freelance writer and journalist residing in Troy, New York. His web site, the American Monitor, may be viewed here and you may contact him via e-mail at

Posted by: che | December 19, 2006 2:06 PM

Che, STFU, we're collectively begging you.

As for everyone else, remember the awful return policy of Burlington? We actually stopped shopping there because of it.

I think Wal Mart's policy is reasonable, as is Target. About why we would need to return? We have 3 kids, and getting them to try stuff on in a tiny room is IMPOSSIBLE. So the wife buys 2 sizes for each thing and returns the one that doesnt work. A reasonable approach I think.

Posted by: JD | December 19, 2006 2:12 PM

I return a lot to retailers that offer a more limited selection in their stores than they do online. J. Crew, for example, doesn't stock any of its petite clothing in stores; it's only available via the catalog or website. So, it's not at all unusual for me to order multiple items in several sizes or colors on speculation, so to speak.

I'm sure it's a hassle for the cashiers to process all of the stuff I return, but I suspect it's still more efficient for them than stocking a whole range of styles/sizes in the stores for people to try on.

Posted by: TC | December 19, 2006 2:18 PM

I applaud your scolding of che, but if you and your wife don't know the sizes of your kids that you have to buy any extra pair and them return the one that doesn't fit, one, you don't know your kids that well and two you are the reason prices are high and return policies are getting tighter.

Thanks. We all needed that

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 19, 2006 2:41 PM

Fair points Sushi, I realize that the returns in some way drive up the retailer's costs, which are then shared socialist-style across all customers in the form of slightly higher prices. Same way buying gasoline with cash subsidizes those who use credit, since most stations don't have different cash/credit prices anymore.

Still, not knowing if you have any children, it's virtually impossible to figure out if one brand's size 4T = another's 5, or 3, or 5 slim, etc... It's an unbelievably frustrating process - same reason you probably try stuff on before buying, even something reasonably standardized like jeans sizes - your wrangler size might be 34-30, and thanks to the cut, the Levi's is 32-29.

For the record, Che does this on every blog, not just this one. I guess he doesn't realize that nobody reads his drivel, and/or doesn't have a life. Che, mommy's calling, time to come up from the basement now.

Posted by: JD | December 19, 2006 3:02 PM


You and JD should get together and see if you can't add an additional 10% of cost to the collective. You two seem to be pretty good at "passing the cost onto the consumer".

Stores don't stock things that don't sell well (retail 101). They were doing you a favor by offering the smaller sizes other ways. You thank them by causing their cashiers to "process" your returns. They, in turn, ask for more money to deal with this and the cost is ultimately passed on to the consumer.

So thank you both for passing the cost of your conveniences on to us.

At least it keep our economy going, right?

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 19, 2006 3:07 PM


Points well taken JD. And yes, I do have kids and I agree that is is mind numbing to get the sizes right. One or two returns is ok. Returns every time gets you black listed and drives up costs.

I like your che comment about coming up from the basement. Still laughing at that one :)

Posted by: Radioactive Sushi | December 19, 2006 3:11 PM

I think I made this point before, but I'll try again: Che is a blog spammer...probably either a bot virus program or a human with a lot of time on his hands. I'm leaning towards the former. If only would get off its arse and block the dude-bot from posting (IP addy, scan for the name che, whatever), we could read blogs in peace. I hold the WaPo responsible for this nonsense, not che. Bah Humbug :-)

On returns: I go out shopping like 4 times a year. Seriously. I hate the malls and tend to order online for necessities or clothing replacement (stocking up so I don't pay shipping.) So the four times I do venture to the mall to see what's new, I make an all day trip out of it and usually buy what I know I will wear. I try stuff on (my mom will NOT, and she is, as a result, a serial returner.) I take stuff back only that is defective or doesn't quite fit right out in the real world of layers, under coats, etc...

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | December 19, 2006 3:32 PM

Had to comment on this one...

Go to any of the "deal" forums and check out the eBay threads. You'll find tens, if not hundreds, of individuals who determine what the hot toy is, buy CASES of them from WalMart, Target, ToysRus, etc., and put them up on eBay.

Thing is, when items tend to lose their resale value on eBay, they RETURN those items to the store. I'm all for entrepreneurship but that involves risk - these people are getting the profits but shifting the risk on to the store, which raises costs for the rest of us.

Then you have those that buy their TVs from Costco and return them after two years to get the next greatest model - this practice is prevalent enough that Costco made mention of it in this year's annual report!

"Normal" consumers are getting caught up in the wave of return policies getting tougher. I'm all for the tougher policies, and think that they need to be tighter.

Posted by: lisa | December 19, 2006 3:42 PM

I remember when I was a kid watching Donahue. There was a woman on there that redecorated her children's rooms every year. How?? She took everything out of their rooms and returned it, either getting cash or store credit. My best friend worked retail for years. People would buy cameras for special occasions [graduations, weddings, etc] then return them a week later. Women would buy dresses, wear them once, and return them [often with tell-tale stains]. During the holidays people would buy tables, chairs, sets of dishes and pots and pans...and return them 2 days after Xmas or Thanksgiving. When I worked at Sears the return policy was that you could return anything and we'd have people bring things in that were so old that we couldn't find it in a catalog; we had about 8 years worth. People shoplift items from one store and return them to another store in the chain to get the money. Thank THOSE people for the tightening of the return policies. Next time you're in a store ask the person at customer service about the weirdest return they've had or heard of and you'll be shocked at what you hear. People gamed the system for decades; the system finally got tired of it.

Posted by: ex-retailer | December 19, 2006 4:28 PM

Where is Osama Bin Laden?

Why did Building 7 collapse on 911? it was not hit by an airplane?

Where are the persons who send the letters with antrax to the US Congress?

Why are our boys and girls dying in Iraq?so that the defense contractors get rich?

For uncensored news please bookmark:

Posted by: che | December 20, 2006 4:54 AM

It's unfortunate that che thinks any forum is available for his spamming. But in a strange way, I understand why. Here we are talking about return policies when there are many larger issues to discuss. I know, I know, this is not the forum for that. I'm just saying, I understand why he/she/it does that.


Posted by: Holly | December 20, 2006 12:22 PM

Holly: you're right. We should identify the top three current issues, and suspend all other discussion about any other topics.

This will have the benefit of drastically streamlining operations at the WP: the Sports, Style, Metro, etc., sections can be simply discontinued, as there are clearly much larger issues to address.

I say those issues are (1) Global Warming (2) Iraq (3) Those insanely annoying diamond commercials, which must be stopped at all cost.

Posted by: Burke | December 20, 2006 12:59 PM

Sushi, how do you recommend dealing with the fact that most retailers of women's clothing have idiosyncratic sizing? Since I mentioned J. Crew, I'll use them as an example. Some of their size 0s fit me perfectly, others are painfully small, and still others are too large (which is just insane). I've made a real effort to familiarize myself with their sizing system (and I know my own measurements), but if they're not consistent, how exactly should I be getting clothes that fit?

Believe me, I'd LOVE to skip the whole ordeal of returning stuff, but until online retailers get a lot more specific about sizing, fit, etc. on their websites, I just don't see another way to approach this.

Posted by: TC | December 20, 2006 1:48 PM

Sushi, you must not shop for your own clothing if you think you can just buy a size and it will automatically fit. Maybe you're a man, and men's clothing is sized differently, but I'm a woman and a size 8 but this doesn't mean every size 8 fits me correctly.

Posted by: Darlene | December 20, 2006 2:33 PM

When retailers offer a fitting room that is clean, nicely lit, and not full of other people's cast off try-ons, then I'll worry about my returns adding a tiny bit to YOUR cost of clothing. I have every right to refuse to waste my time in a nasty fitting room and to take a few items home to try in privacy and decent lighting. I'm not "wearing and returning" (Jessica Simpson actually told the world that she used to do this, with her mother's encouragement!) or any of those other tricks. The store is failing to provide customers with a decent place to try on clothes, so yeah, they are going to lose money because of it.

Posted by: Angela | December 20, 2006 2:39 PM


Snarkiness will get you nowhere, except to maybe make you feel better.

Posted by: Holly | December 21, 2006 10:23 AM

The store is failing to provide customers with a decent place to try on clothes, so yeah, they are going to lose money because of it.

Uh, Angela it's not entirely the store's fault -- it's the inconsiderate people that we have to share this Earth with. Like drivers who don't use turn signals and then curse you out when they cut you off.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | December 21, 2006 10:34 AM

To Melissa:

You may have had success with Target, but I find them quite restrictive. I have returned such things as DVDs (unopened) or baby items without receipt. They usually only replace for an item from that area (with baby items, it could be down to a single shelf), AND they tell me I can only do this twice year. Yikes!! I think a generous return policy ENCOURAGES business; after all, if you buy that skirt that you ultimately decide you don't like, the odds are you're just going to toss it aside ... and go buy another one, possibly from the same place!

Posted by: Anonymous | December 21, 2006 4:18 PM

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