[Editor's note: We've updated this story, which originally appeared in January 2008, to reflect current returns and other policies.]
An HDTV is not a sweater--a fact that retailers will make very clear if you try to return your new flat screen. If the digital cameras (or other tech gifts) you got from your mom, your cousin, or your best friend this holiday season must head back to the store, you need to be prepared before you get there.
Consistently, retailers maintain separate return policies for electronics. "We're talking [about] some higher-end items that retailers want to move quickly," says Better Business Bureau spokesperson Steve Cox. "They don't want to be caught with old stock."
Additionally, says Cox, retailers are legally allowed to set any return policies they want, as long as those policies are posted.
Following is our best advice to help you avoid headaches and high blood pressure at the customer-service counter.
Do You Really Want to Take the Item Back?
Before you go to the store, consider why you are returning an item. Could your dissatisfaction be a result of your setting up the gizmo improperly? Think about paying for some professional assistance before giving up on your brand-new home-entertainment system.
Jeff Dudash, a Best Buy spokesperson, notes that many returns of home-entertainment systems and computers to the giant consumer-electronics chain follow failed attempts to install or configure the devices. Often, professional services such as Circuit City's Firedog or Best Buy's Geek Squad can get the gadgets working correctly. And nerds-on-call don't necessarily need to come out to your house to help. Geek Squad, for example, has online videos that show how to set up your shiny new toys.
Okay, so geeks in cars can't help you dispose of three extra digital cameras. The key to a quick and easy return is simple: Don't dawdle. For electronics returns, stores generally give you less time--and make you jump through more hoops--than they do for other items. The good news is that most retailers have holiday return policies that are less stringent than their standard policies--and in 2008, as sellers struggle to attract customers, some policies are even more lenient than the ones in effect in 2007.
Circuit City, for example, has further relaxed its usual 14-day return policy: For products purchased between November 2 and December 24, 2008, consumers have until January 31, 2009, to bring or mail the items back to the store (last time they had until January 8). Amazon.com will accept returns for merchandise bought between November 1 and December 31, 2008, until January 31, 2009.
Best Buy's holiday return policy is more strict--and more complicated. Generally, merchandise bought between November 1 and December 24, 2008, can be returned through January 24, 2009. However, monitors, projectors, digital cameras, camcorders, radar detectors, and video games purchased used must be returned within two weeks of Christmas--January 8, 2009. Desktop and laptop PCs must be returned no later than 14 days "from date merchandise is received." And certain purchases, including opened software, music, movies, and video games, are subject to Best Buy's standard 14-day online return policy.
For electronics, Costco is sticking to the 90-day return policy it instituted last year. It has set no window for other types of merchandise.
Don't Open Anything
Stores typically have several requirements for handing over a full refund. The first, and most important, is that the box be sealed.
If the box is open, the retailer will need to test the gadget to ensure that it's in full working order--which means that accepting your return will cost the company time and money. Unfortunately, that in turn means it will cost you money, too.
Best Buy and Circuit City both charge a 15 percent restocking fee on most opened electronics. Amazon.com charges a 15 percent restocking fee on opened laptops and desktops.
If you have opened the box, be certain that it's full before you head to the store. "Make sure you bring everything back in. If there are any accessories missing, a wire or anything, you'll probably need to go back home to get it," says Best Buy's Dudash. "I've had to do that before."
Circuit City will deduct the cost of each missing item from your refund. For exchanges, the retailer will simply replace what you've brought (a manual for a manual, a cable for a cable), so you're on your own for whatever piece you've left behind.
Save Your Receipt
Yes, this one is a big "Duh." Don't have a receipt? No return for you. But as the BBB's Cox observes, it's always a problem: "Every holiday season it comes up: Get a receipt. It's astounding how many folks don't do that. Every year literally billions of dollars are lost in return fraud. Retailers are not interested in having somebody buy something, use it over the holidays, and bring it back. Get a receipt and hang on to that receipt, or you're going to have a tough time."
If you received the gadget as a gift or you accidentally misplaced the receipt, you're not completely out of luck. Amazon.com, for example, will issue a gift certificate rather than a refund. If you call the site's customer service number, the representative will ask you a few questions to identify the original order (and they promise not to tell on you for returning a gift).
If you bought the product for yourself, Best Buy's Dudash notes that the retailer may be able to look up your credit card number in its computer to locate the sale and facilitate a return.
If You Bought the Item Online
Some retailers have the same policies for online returns as they do for in-store returns, but others don't. Circuit City, for example, requires that you obtain a return authorization (many merchants call this a return merchandise authorization or RMA) before mailing back a product purchased online. That means you must advise the site (by filling out a Web form) that you're returning the product and thereby get a number that you will put on the package to expedite processing when it arrives at the return facility.
Circuit City also requires you to pay shipping and insurance on each package. But like Best Buy and Costco, Circuit City will accept in-person returns of online purchases at any of its retail stores.
Don't Be a Regular Returner
Believe it or not, a company called The Retail Equation (formerly The Return Exchange) helps most retailers track your return habits. The purpose of such monitoring is to reduce fraud, but even if you're an honest person who simply has difficulty making decisions, frequent returns can get you in trouble. Retailers may simply refuse to accept your return or permit an exchange. If you want to see what information The Retail Equation has about your product returns, you can contact the company at an e-mail address on its Web site.
What If the Product Is Busted?
No retailer wants to sell you damaged goods. If you open the box and your product doesn't work, the store that sold it to you should take it back. That said, the retailer is not likely to give you a refund; rather, it will most likely require you to exchange the item for a functioning unit.
"Any type of damaged product can be exchanged for that same product," says Best Buy's Dudash. He recommends that customers check with the store before exercising the manufacturer's warranty: "Come back to the store first--it's more convenient."
When to Contact the Manufacturer
If you've used the item extensively or waited several months to take it back, however, returning the item to the retailer will not be an option. At that point, it's time to check your manufacturer's warranty.
Almost all new gadgets come with limited warranties, but their coverage varies widely. Sony, for example, guarantees its LCD color TVs for parts and labor for up to one year after purchase. The company's portable audio players, on the other hand, are guaranteed for parts and labor for only up to 90 days after purchase. Don't fret if you've misplaced your warranty card, though: Many manufacturers make product warranties available online for download in PDF form.
If Worst Comes to Worst, Sell It
Just can't get the retailer to take the product back? No worries! Selling open-box items is a big business on eBay. In fact, eBay sellers even publish guides on how to buy open-box products. If you've exhausted all of your options and you just want to get rid of your gadget, consider putting it up on a site such as Amazon.com, Craigslist, or eBay. Someone out there is ready to buy one of your three brand-new digital cameras.
If You Believe the Merchant Treated You Unfairly
Unfortunately, you will not always be happy with the return process. If you think a retailer acted irresponsibly--or criminally--you can turn to other folks for assistance. Report poor business practices online to the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. If that doesn't work, try contacting PC World's On Your Side department at firstname.lastname@example.org . Though we can't troubleshoot every problem that comes through our mailbox, we can try to help.
Go to the Source
Ready to return? Read the policy first. Here are links to the returns policies of several major retailers.