Holiday gift returns: Know your consumer rights

In the excitement of shopping you don't like to imagine the person won't like what you've bought. But to be safe, ask about return policies before you buy. The rules vary depending on where you shop and sometimes depending on what you buy.

On a brisk day of holiday shopping, only some of the folks we spoke with at San Francisco's Union Square had even asked the stores they shopped at whether their gifts could be returned if necessary.

"I guess I pretty much leave it up to the receiver," said Karen Gardner of Humboldt County. "If they don't want it, they can return it, or try to."

"Sometimes you know exactly what the person wants, but if you're hesitant, it's definitely good to make sure that it's returnable and easily exchangeable for them," said Eunice Lee of Castro Valley.

"I'll ask, do you have an extended policy or is there a certain reason we can't return it, like if we open an electronic [device]?" said Amanda Solorio of Vacaville.

Return policies can vary widely, so you before you buy a gift you might want to find about any restrictions.

"Short windows of opportunity, restocking fees, how many hoops you have to jump through... Does it have to have its original tags? Are you allowed to take it out of the box and put it back or must it be in the box in an unopened state?" said Tod Marks with Consumer Reports.

Here's a sampling of return policies at some major retailers:

  • At Bed, Bath and Beyond, you can return items even if they're opened, as long as there is a receipt.

  • Macy's has a liberal return policy, but there are exceptions. If you buy a ring, for example, be careful. Rings come in only one size (size 7), so if you have it fitted, that ring is yours for keeps. Other jewelry must be returned within 30 days.

  • Home Depot takes items back, but the store receipt says it can limit or deny returns. The company says that means if you bought it online you can't return it to the store.

  • Staples has liberal return policies, too, except for electronics and furniture. They must be returned within 14 days.

Finally, with all the big sales going on, it is very tempting to buy discounted items. But watch out because at many stores those sales are final, or you can only return the merchandise for store credit.

Bottom line, ask about policies first and hang on to receipts.

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