Q. I got a few holiday gifts this year that I want to return - how can I make that process more convenient, especially for the items that came from online retailers?
A. If you're returning holiday gifts this year, the first thing to do is wait - a little. The lines at return counters are worst in the few days following Christmas, but they tend to thin out quickly.
Don't wait too long to make your exchanges, though, because many retailers have special holiday gift return periods that may offer you more flexible return and exchange policies, but only through that time frame, which often runs through mid or late January.
Next thing to do is to arm yourself with information. Find the return policy of the store the item came from, and read it carefully. Know whether you're well within your rights to ask for a refund, or if you'll be asking for an accommodation, especially if you don't have a receipt.
Sometimes this information is easy to find on the back of a receipt, sometimes it's not. Patti Freeman Evans, senior analyst for retail at JupiterResearch Inc., says that a number of online retailers are being more aggressive about highlighting their return policies on their Web sites.
The strategy is twofold: Serve the customers they already have well, but also try to entice new customers to come in, with the reassurance that whoever receives the gift they're sending can have an easy time making exchanges.
With more retailers going online, she said, sites are increasingly competing on customer service as a way to draw in people who don't already shop online, or who shop somewhere else. So if you got something from an online retailer, check the site to make sure you know about the return policy - in some cases it's right there on the home page.
There are still headaches for some products. It's common for retailers to charge a "restocking" fee of 15 percent to 20 percent for many electronics items if the box has been opened, and those items may also have shorter periods in which they can be returned.
Edgar Dworksy, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, an online consumer education guide, said some gift-givers have had trouble with a relatively short 14-day return period on computers, which in some cases would expire even before the gift was given.
This year, Dworsky said, electronics retailer Best Buy Co. made a big change by simplifying and also loosening its exchange policy for the holiday period, allowing returns on all goods until Jan. 31.
At the same time, Costco Wholesale Corp. tightened up its return policy this year, Dworsky said, limiting return periods to 90 days for TVs, computers, cameras and other electronic devices. It had been open-ended for all products except computers.
"They learned that consumers were taking advantage of them," Dworsky said.
In order to stave off fraud and abuse of return policies, some retailers keep track of how many returns are made by individuals and turn down shoppers who make too many.
The Return Exchange, a privately held company in Irvine, Calif., keeps track of exchanges patterns at several retailers, a little like a credit bureau does for credit ratings.
The Limited has disclosed that it won't allow more than five returns within 90 days, Dworsky said. Otherwise, most other retailers won't tell you the "secret formula" of what counts as too many exchanges.
If you think you've been unfairly denied an exchange, you can ask the Return Exchange for a copy of your return report by sending an e-mail to ReturnActivityReport@TheReturnExchange.com
The Return Exchange: