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How to Return and Exchange Your Unwanted Gifts or Purchases

Everyone returns a gift or an impulse purchase now and then. Maybe it doesn’t fit. Maybe it doesn’t suit your taste. Maybe you ordered something on a whim (or you snagged an awesome deal) and now you have buyer’s remorse. Or maybe you just read a book extolling the virtues of minimalism and want to give that lifestyle a swing. Whether it’s well-meant gifts from relatives or your impulsive Amazon Prime orders, the good news is that you can easily return things.

Whatever your logic for returning an item, you’re not alone. The National Retail Federation estimates that around $428 billion worth of US merchandise was returned in 2020, accounting for about 10 percent of total sales. Around the holiday season, an estimated two-thirds of giftees return an item.

“Consumers are really used to being able to return their goods,” said Larisa Summers, senior vice president of marketing and ecommerce at Optoro, a platform that helps retailers like Target and Staples recoup the costs of returned goods. “I think a lot of consumers are not aware of how complicated that is for retailers.”

You might think that returned goods are restocked on the shelf where they came from, but Summers said this happens only about half of the time. Other times, the returned goods are sold to other retailers—or worse, thrown out. Optoro estimates that 5 billion pounds of returned items end up in landfills every year.

So if you’re going to return holiday gifts or purchases, do it in a smart and sustainable way. Being smart about returns yields the best gift of all: a less-cluttered home and planet.

Updated December 2021: Much of our advice on how to return still stands; we’ve added a few retailers and updated return policies.

The Basics

First things first: You have more time than you think. While “30 days after the time of purchase” is the normal year-round policy, most retailers adjust their return-by date around shopping holidays to accommodate returns. We’ve also seen regular return policies extended because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Make sure to pack your item with all tags, accessories, and original packaging if possible. Unless you’re exchanging a defective product, be sure your item is in good condition. Goods returned in their original packaging and in original condition are much easier to resell, Summers said. Without the original packaging, there’s a higher chance the items will be thrown out.

Bring your receipt, too, especially if it’s a gift receipt. Generally, having one makes it easier and more likely that you’ll get cash or store credit for your return. Some stores will work with you to gather order information if you’ve lost your receipt. At other retailers, you’ll be out of luck. Some stores require you to show them ID, so be sure to bring that along too.

Summers encourages you to share why you’re returning a product. Retailers take this kind of feedback seriously, since it helps them potentially reduce returns for the following year.


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