BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Holiday returns seem like such an easy task until you're the poor sap at the customer service desk trying to explain why you opened the box for a $249 iPod you didn't want.
Returning unwanted gifts is still as common a post-holiday tradition as leaving Christmas lights up until the snow thaws or hitting the elliptical machine to work off a few dozen cookies. A Consumer Reports survey found that one in five Americans, or nearly 50 million in all, expect to return a Christmas gift this year. Roughly the same percentage of all adults were stuck with a bad gift last year, though 18% donated the offending present, 15% re-gifted it and 22% either returned it or just threw it out.
On the retail side, merchants believe that will translate to 9.9% of all holiday purchases being returned this year. That's up from 9.8% last year and a scant 8.8% back in pre-recession 2007. That's $46.3 billion in presents returning to from whence they came and a significant increase from the $39.7 billion in products consumers brought back four years ago.
Those returns are plentiful, but no one is saying they're easy. There are 82.5% of retailers that will leave their return policies unchanged, according to a National Retail Federation holiday survey of retailers, but that's only after 25% tightened restrictions in 2006, another 17% made returns more difficult during the recession-rattled 2008 holiday season and another 12.6% became far less lenient this year.
This is all in an attempt to ward off retail fraud that the NRF says accounted for 8.4% and $3.4 billion of all returns last year. In some cases, stores are emailing customers receipts to defend against counterfeiting, tracking customer purchases through loyalty programs and, at Macy's (Stock Quote: M), slapping customer return labels on purchases.
"Before you actually return items, you want to make sure you understand the return policy completely," says Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports. "Whereas many retailers are willing to accept items below a certain value without a receipt, even if you do have a receipt you can be turned away for any reason -- or you can get the last price the item sold for and not the price the purchaser paid for it."
What consumers and gift recipients shouldn't do, however, is expect all those newly tightened rules to go away any time soon. Those technological tweaks and policy changes have retailers in the NRF's survey expecting total fraudulent returns to drop by more than $200 million and the percentage of illicit returns to dip to 7.5%.
"Retailers have been adjusting their policies over the last three or four years and feel comfortable with the steps they've taken," says Joe LaRocca, senior adviser on asset protection for the federation. "Advancements in technology have really benefited companies' experience with customers and the recession and meltdown have allowed them to assess the product assortment."
To avoid a nasty case of return rage this holiday season, we teamed with Consumer Reports and the federation to provide the following steps for a speedy, static-free return process. Now take a deep breath and take back that horrible "gift" you've been diplomatically hiding beneath the couch: