Holiday Gifts and Buyer's Remorse: Understanding Your Right to Return

With the holiday season just completed, consumers are assessing not only what they received, but also the damage on their credit card bills. Businesses who reached out to consumers during the holiday shopping season must also brace for the prospect of returning purchases and refunds. As a consumer, it's important to know when you have the right to return a defective product as well as take advantage of the little-known cooling-off period.

Can I Return Any Holiday Gift?

When you receive an item as a gift, you're basically stuck dealing with the return rules of the company the gift was purchased from. Conscientious gift-givers often will include a gift receipt with your present. When you have a gift receipt, returns are easy. Most companies allow returns within 30 days of purchase. Sometimes there will be limits on the kind of refund you get – many companies only give store credit in exchange for a return.

If your friend did not include a receipt, you may not be able to return the item. First, you may not have any idea where your friend purchased it, and most retailers will not take return of an item that is sold in other places. Second, the friend may have purchased it online or on sale and the item may therefore be nonreturnable. Your best solution there is to try to re-sell the gift online, or of course the classic re-gift (giving the item to another friend – ideally one far away who does not know the friend who gave it to you).

I Spent Too Much – Can I Return My Big Purchase?

The basic answer is: sometimes. It all depends on the company's return policy. The first thing to remember is to always save your receipts! That goes for any purchase, not just big ones. You never know when something is going to be dysfunctional or damaged. The best thing to do is to ask about the return policy before you buy. Stores that offer only store credit on returns can be highly inconvenient if the store only sells a certain type of product that you've decided not to buy at all, like a bicycle.

Most sellers, however, have reasonable return policies. Usually there will be a time limit on how long you have to return an item. As mentioned above, 30 days is standard, but some companies allow longer or restrict the return period to less than 30 days. Some retailers may even allow returns on any item, no matter how long ago it was purchased.

How Do I Return a Product I'm Not Happy With?

The first thing to do is contact the seller. You can go back to the store or, if you purchased online, call the customer service number. Sometimes the return will be easy – they take the item and pay you back. Other times, however, it will not be so simple. You should keep a record of every conversation you have with the seller: who you talked to, what they said, and what they promised. Don't hesitate to contact the company headquarters or try to get a manager on the phone.

If this doesn't work, write a complaint letter. Include all the relevant information, such as when you purchased the item and why you want to return it. You should also include copies of any document you received during the purchase (receipts, warranties, etc.).

If you still are not satisfied with the response of the company, you should file a complaint with a consumer group. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has an easy online form to fill out. There are space limitations, so state only the most important details, including the item you bought, the cost, reasons for returning, who you talked to at the company, and exactly the result you want. In most cases, of course, the "result" will be a refund. You should state exactly how much you want back (the price of the item). Often, the company will not want to deal with negative repercussions from the BBB and will comply immediately with their request.

Also, if you purchased an item with your credit card and cannot get the company to pay you back, you can try taking up the matter with your credit card company as a "disputed charge." Usually, the credit card company will refund your money and proceed to address the issue directly with the company.

The Cooling-Off Period: Your Right to Return

The cooling-off period has been in existence since the 1970s, but still not many people know it exists. Under the rule, you have 3 days to return something you change your mind about for a full refund. However, the cooling-off period only applies to sales of items that are over $25 and which were made door-to-door or at a place other than the seller's regular place of business. The intent of the rule was to protect consumers who felt pressured by aggressive salesmen.

Since much holiday shopping is now done online or in large stores, the cooling-off period does not apply to most current purchases. Still, it's important to know your rights in regard to the cooling-off rule. Many companies hire seasonal workers to go out and sell their products outside of their regular stores, so it could be an option available to you.