Returning Christmas gifts? Here's everything you need to know before heading to the stores

The Christmas shopping frenzy may be over but now comes those returns.

ByTim Pulliam KABC logo
Tuesday, December 26, 2023
Returning Christmas gifts? Here's everything you need to know
With Christmas in the rearview mirror, many people are heading back to the stores to return unwanted gifts. Here's what you need to know plus, here's what happens to those gift cards that go unused.

LOS ANGELES -- The Christmas shopping frenzy may be over but now comes those returns.

According to the National Retail Federation, $173 billion worth of holiday gifts are expected to be returned this year. Why? Experts say holiday sales were at record levels for 2023, reaching nearly $1 trillion.

If you're heading back to the stores Tuesday to return unwanted gifts, here's what to keep in mind. The good news is some stores are still offering Christmas deals, hoping that'll lead to an exchange rather than a return.

But if you have to return items, hopefully you have a receipt. It's a gamble on what you may get back.

"Retailers have different policies when it comes to returning without a receipt," said Kristin McGrath with RetailMeNot. "A lot of times, if you show up and it's an item from their store, and you don't have a receipt, sometimes, they'll work with you, give you a merchandise credit or a store gift card that you can turn around and use."

Also, check the fine print! Some retailers add fees and deadlines. Macy's current restocking fee is $9.99 while JCPenney is charging $8. TJ Maxx charges $11.99.

In some cases, you can return items in store, even though you may have purchased them from a retailer online.

"A lot of retailers offer longer return windows, so even if an item was bought in, say, November, it can be returned sometimes through mid-January," said Kristin McGrath with RetailMeNot. "So you do have a little bit of extra time beyond that usual 15 to 30-day return window that a retailer might offer at a normal time. Keep in mind, you're going to have to offer a retailers rules on returning that package. You might have to return a packing slip. You're going to have to take it to whichever carrier delivered the item, whether that's USPS, UPS or FedEx."

According to Amazon, most of the items (other than Apple brand products) purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned until January 31, 2024. For Apple brand products, items purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned until January 15, 2024.

Target allows 90 days for most returns while Best Buy's gives you until Jan. 13. Macy's and Walmart give you until Jan. 31 to make your returns.

The secret life of gift cards: Here's what happens to those that go unused

Americans were expected to spend nearly $30 billion on gift cards this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. Restaurant gift cards are the most popular, making up one-third of those sales.

Most of those gift cards will be redeemed. Paytronix, which tracks restaurant gift card sales, says around 70% of gift cards are used within six months.

But many cards - tens of billions of dollars' worth - wind up forgotten or otherwise unused. That's when the life of a gift card gets more complicated, with expiration dates or inactivity fees that can vary by state.

Gift cards get lost or forgotten, or recipients hang on to them for a special occasion. In a July survey, the consumer finance company Bankrate found that 47% of U.S. adults had at least one unspent gift card or voucher. The average value of unused gift cards is $187 per person, a total of $23 billion.

Under a federal law that went into effect in 2010, a gift card can't expire for five years from the time it was purchased or from the last time someone added money to it. Some state laws require an even longer period. In New York, for instance, any gift card purchased after Dec. 10, 2022, can't expire for nine years.

Differing state laws are one reason many stores have stopped using expiration dates altogether, said Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at Bankrate.

While it may take gift cards years to expire, experts say it's still wise to spend them quickly. Some cards - especially generic cash cards from Visa or MasterCard - will start accruing inactivity fees if they're not used for a year, which eats away at their value. Inflation also makes cards less valuable over time. And if a retail store closes or goes bankrupt, a gift card could be worthless.

If you have a gift card you don't want, one option is to sell it on a site like CardCash or Raise. Rossman says resale sites won't give you face value for your cards, but they will typically give 70 to 80 cents per dollar.

What happens to the money when a gift card goes unused? It depends on the state where the retailer is incorporated.

When you buy a gift card, a retailer can use that money right away. But it also becomes a liability; the retailer has to plan for the possibility that the gift card will be redeemed.

Every year, big companies calculate "breakage," which is the amount of gift card liability they believe won't be redeemed based on historical averages. For some companies, like Seattle-based Starbucks, breakage is a huge profit-driver. Starbucks reported $212 million in revenue from breakage in 2022.

But in at least 19 states - including Delaware, where many big companies are incorporated - retailers must work with state unclaimed property programs to return money from unspent gift cards to consumers. Money that isn't recovered by individual consumers is spent on public service initiatives; in the states' view, it shouldn't go to companies because they haven't provided a service to earn it.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have unclaimed property programs. Combined, they return around $3 billion to consumers annually, says Misha Werschkul, the executive director of the Washington State Budget and Policy Center.

Werschkul says it can be tricky to find the holders of unspent gift cards, but the growing number of digital cards that name the recipient helps. State unclaimed property offices jointly run the website, where consumers can search by name for any unclaimed property they're owed, including cash from gift cards.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.