What makes a great return policy? Enough time to get that mistake back to the store? Recouping your money without having to dig through a pile of receipts? Receiving that return in whatever form is most convenient for you? And, if you're buying online, how about free return shipping?
These days, with a lot of merchants, you have to pick and choose which points are most important to you. When it comes to returns, very few retailers offer it all. Some stores might give a full return within a certain window of time, but you need a real receipt, not a gift receipt. Others have a very short time window but might not require much paperwork. And some are lenient on time but might limit you to a store gift card.
Don't forget that rules can also change depending on what you bought or how you paid for it. And a handful of stores also assess those pesky restocking fees. It's enough to make even a veteran shopper dizzy.
During the holidays though, many of the major retailers will offer more liberal return policies, says Teri Gault, co-author of Shop Smart, Save More. Here, in no particular order, are five stores that are earning a reputation for making returns easy.
The return policy is that there is no return policy, says Colin Johnson, spokesman for Nordstrom. "You won't find one posted at the cash register or on your receipt. We're just going to stand behind our merchandise. The bottom line is that we work with the customer."
The highlights to this kind of thinking for a consumer are that there's no time limit, no receipt required and no paperwork. You're also treated the same whether you have a gift receipt or purchase receipt. If you bought online from Nordstrom.com, the store provides free return shipping, he says. Or you can take the item back to a local store.
"The ultimate objective is taking care of the customer," Johnson says. "It really depends on the situation. You really can't have a rule book that takes into account every scenario." The chain's discount store, Nordstrom Rack, operates a little differently with respect to returns because items come from closeouts and special purchases, says Johnson. There, you'll have 30 days to return items, and receipts and tags are preferred, he says. Bottom line is that employees "try to remove the clutter, the policy-type stuff that can get in the way of taking care of the customer."
You'd think an online shoe store would be a tough sell, since shoes are all about fit. But Zappos.com has built a business around making returns easy so that customers can order several pairs, try them on and ship back the ones that don't work. As a result, the retailer is as famous for its return policy as it is for its shoes. "The return policy for Zappos.com is if you're not 100 percent satisfied with your purchase, you can return it for a full refund," says Corey Schreiber, content developer for Zappos Insights.
The highlights to Zappos.com's policy are that you have one year to return merchandise. Because you're shopping online (and orders are tracked), you never need a receipt. Shipping is free for orders and returns. And for returns, you can print out shipping labels at the Zappos site, or the company will email or snail mail them to you, he says.
One cool feature is the company's "advanced exchange." If you need a different size or color, the company will ship it to you for free. All you have to do is send back the first item within the next two weeks, he says. All the shipping is free, and you don't have to worry about carrying two items on your credit or debit account. "We use it as a 'wow' tool," says Schreiber.
Just what every consumer needs: No time limits and no receipts required. If you bought online from L.L.Bean, you can return the merchandise to your local store, or you can send the item back using prepaid labels you can print from the site. It's all part of the Maine-based retailer's "100 percent satisfaction guarantee," says Carolyn Beem, an L.L.Bean spokeswoman. "We are one of the few companies out there that lets the customer define what 'satisfaction' is," she says.