Exchanges, returns and refunds: Customers should know before they go

FOR the Customer
By Robb Hicken/ BBB’s chief storyteller

The presents have been unwrapped, the toys and clothing set aside. Now, the adjustments, returns, refunds and exchange processes begin.

Better Business Bureau accredited businesses stand for trust and will make every effort to do the right thing when dealing with exchanges, refunds and returns. As a customer, it’s important for you to remember that a store is not obligated to accept items for refund, exchange, or credit unless the item is defective or was misrepresented. If you have problems you can file a complaint with the BBB.

Before you take a gift back to a retail store, consider the following:

Familiarize yourself with stores’ policies – The terms, conditions, requirements and restrictions can vary widely, even within a chain.  Some may allow a return for no reason at all at any time.  Returns policies are usually prominently displayed at the checkout counter or on online sellers’ websites.  Print out a copy for your records.

Online gift returns may come at a cost – Shipping costs for returns to online vendors are usually borne by the person making the exchange.  If you buy an item from a retailer’s online catalog, find out whether the gift can be returned directly to the store.

Proof of Purchase and Packaging – At the very least, a receipt is usually required to return a gift.  Keep all original packaging and accessories.  If the gift is being returned in a sealed or hard shell package that has been opened, such as an electronic gadget, the store may impose a re-stocking or “open box” fee of anywhere between one percent and 50 percent of its value, because the items cannot be re-sold as new.  The highest re-stocking charges are usually associated with made-to-order items.

Don’t wait too long – While it is not necessary to run out to the store the day after you receive an unwanted gift, many stores have a limited time frame from the date of purchase during which you may return an item.  Ask about the length of the grace period for gift returns.

You may require identification – A driver’s permit is the most common type of identification needed for a return or exchange, however, other forms of ID may be accepted, along with your name, address and telephone number to complete the return.

The Cooling-Off Rule – The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Cooling-Off Rule allows consumers to return items over $25 within three days of purchase.  However, this applies to sales at a place that is not the seller’s permanent place of business.  Exemptions and other information about the Cooling-Off Rule are available on the FTC website.

If you run into a problem with a return at the customer service desk, ask to speak with a supervisor.  In addition, merchants may be able to accommodate loyal customers, or customers with a credit account.

If you have problems you can file a complaint with the BBB.

Orders through catalogs, mail order, TV shopping networks or online – Online venues have different policies than retailers. Merchandise broken or damaged in delivery may only be discovered after it’s unwrapped. Most shipping companies have clear policies on filing claims. For delivery problems, look at the tracking slip, the company’s website and customer service contact numbers.

If consumers experience mail-order or credit-card problems, the FTC recommends that they first contact the retailer or the card issuer and attempt to resolve the problem. If that does not work, contact the local Better Business Bureau or local and state consumer protection offices.

For mail order, contact either the U.S. Postal Service or the Direct Marketing Association, an industry-sponsored organization. The Association can be reached at 11 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036-8096; 212-768-7277.

The FTC also is interested in hearing from consumers. Although the agency does not intervene in each dispute, information from consumers relating their experiences is vital to the agency’s law enforcement efforts. Consumers may address their complaints to the Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.

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