Gary Levin recently learned a lesson most consumers don't confront till something goes wrong - unless, that is, they're dealing with someone named "PixieDust276" on eBay:

When you buy something, you're also buying into a relationship with the seller. And sometimes, relationships go sour.

A retired teacher who lives in Broomall, Levin recently bought a 40-inch Sharp television at Sixth Avenue Electronics, a New York-area retailer that recently expanded into the Philadelphia region.

Levin liked the TV in the store. But when he got it home and had Comcast hook it up in his bedroom, the picture wasn't as bright and sharp as he remembered, nor as bright and sharp as the Samsung in his den.

He brought the TV back the next Saturday to the store on Concord Pike outside Wilmington - on Day Seven of what he thought was a 10-day return policy.

But the store wouldn't take it back for a refund or credit. And that's where Levin's relationship with Sixth Avenue really hit the skids: over the retailer's return policy.

Levin says all he knew was what was stated on his receipt: "All refunds/exchanges must be in like-new condition and have original packaging and accessories. Some items may not be returned once opened. A receipt dated within 10 days is required for any refund and 30 days for any exchange."

To Levin, his rights were clear enough. "I purchased what was on the slip," he says.

Of course, after 38 years teaching English, Levin knew that meant he'd also purchased some ambiguity - a loophole perhaps big enough for a 40-inch TV to slip through. "It never says which items" can't be returned, Levin concedes.

Had he visited Sixth Avenue's Web site, as the receipt suggested, Levin might have discovered what he was told that day in the store: 32-inch and larger televisions head the list.

A slow burn

Levin says Sixth Avenue presented a couple alternatives, but neither appealed.

If he took a new version of the same set, Levin worried that he still wouldn't like the picture - that the problem may have been that store models were fed through a better signal. The store also offered an exchange for a different TV, but it didn't have one he wanted.

Meanwhile, Sixth Avenue refused the only accommodation that would have satisfied him: a store credit.

"They said no, because the salesperson had already gotten his commission," Levin recalls - an account the store's manager disputes.

As happens when relationships head downhill, Levin soon found more reasons to be unhappy.

Perhaps the last straw was his discovery that the local Better Business Bureau had given the Concord Pike store a grade of "F," citing insufficient information about the company and "failure to respond to 3 complaints" filed since the branch's September opening.

Levin complained to the BBB and to the Delaware attorney general's office. He disputed the charges on his Visa card. And he contacted Consumer 10.0.

"I don't think this is a gray area," Levin told me. "I think this is much closer to right and wrong. And Sixth Avenue is wrong."

Reaching a resolution

Before I continue, I should note at least one gray area Levin wasn't aware of: that BBB grade. In the organization's New Jersey database, Sixth Avenue's headquarters location gets an "A+." The BBB says that over the last three years, Sixth Avenue has been the target of 180 complaints, with only one listed as unresolved.

That said, Better Business Bureau grades are just one factor for consumers to consider, and largely a measure of a company's responsiveness to complaints.

What about the store policies themselves?

Josh Ballard, manager of the Concord Pike store, defends the return rules, noting that the company does give refunds for many items, including portable electronics, DVD players, receivers, and smaller TVs.

Why no store credit? Ballard couldn't explain the rule, but says it's a long-standing company policy he enforces "to a T."

"When a customer brings in a TV that's defective, they have to leave with a TV of equal or greater value," he says.

Retailers' return policies are often minefields. To get an outside perspective on Sixth Avenue's, I contacted Norman Silber, an expert in consumer law at Hofstra University. Without endorsing its particulars, Silber said the policy "doesn't fail the smell test."

Silber says companies can limit customers' options, as long as they adequately disclose their policies and as long as those policies meet the law's essential purpose: that a buyer is entitled to get what he or she paid for, and to a reasonable remedy if the product falls short.

Ballard says Sixth Avenue's policies are disclosed not just on the Web, but in signs posted in several places at the store, including at the checkout counter. Levin says he never saw anything saying his TV couldn't be returned.

Of course, as Silber also notes, retailers have to worry not just about satisfying the law, but about satisfying customers - keeping them happy and ready to come back.

Perhaps Sixth Avenue finally took that to heart. On Friday, it turned an angry customer into a happy one: Ballard offered Levin a store credit for his unwanted TV.