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.
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.
Finally, know individual store policies. Some stores will adjust their policy for opened or unopened products while others will take returns and exchanges only in stores. We’ve rounded up policies from some of the most popular retailers, but it’s a good idea to have a firm understanding of policies specific to the item you’re trying to return before you head to the mall.
Amazon’s Return Policy
Amazon will honor returns and exchanges for most items shipped back within 30 days of when the items are received. The retailer’s holiday policy extends the return window to January 31 for gifts bought from October 1 to December 31. Pack your item and log in to your Amazon account to start a return. You’ll need to enter the order ID from the packing slip. Print and affix the provided return label to your package. When your item is received, you’ll get a refund in the form of an Amazon gift card. (If you're the gift giver, you'll get a refund.)
If you have a Whole Foods (also owned by Amazon) in your vicinity, it's even easier. Simply start the return in your Amazon account as usual, but select your local Whole Foods as a drop-off point. Amazon will email you a QR code. Take the item (no need to bring the original box or packaging) and the QR code to Whole Foods, and drop it off at the Customer Service or Pickup/Return kiosk. That's it—they'll take it, pack it, and ship it back for you. If a Kohl’s is near where you live, the retailer has a similar return process for unwanted Amazon items.
Tech Retailers: Apple, Best Buy, Walmart, Target, GameStop
Apple will accept returns only on items purchased at an Apple Store or from Apple’s website. Note that Apple's return window is shorter than some other retailers'—you typically have 14 calendar days after the product arrives to return it. The return window is a little longer during the holiday season for items bought through Apple’s online store. Gifts that arrive between November 1 and December 25 can be sent back by January 8. For gifts, refunds are issued in the form of an Apple gift card. Exchanges can only be done in the Apple Store.
Log in to your account, select whether you're returning a purchase or a gift, and follow the instructions on the page. If you’re returning an iPhone or iPad, follow up with your wireless carrier to make sure the wireless service has been canceled.
Best Buy has varying return windows. Customers usually have 15 days to return products, but many purchases made between October 18 and January 2 can be sent back by January 16. The retailer also offers three memberships that include extended return times. My Best Buy Elite members get 30 days, Elite Plus members get 45, and Totaltech members get 60. Process your returns in-store or by mail with a prepaid return label, and expect to receive your refund via store credit. Beware: For gifts returned by mail, Best Buy will send an email notification to the gift giver.
Walmart will accept returns and exchanges for most items within 90 days of purchase. Note that items purchased in-store can only be returned in-store; items purchased online can be returned in-store or by mail. Refunds are issued by gift card, cash back, or as a credit to the payment method you used. Take the receipt with you to ensure you’ll get a quick refund. You may want to use Mobile Express Return to expedite the process. If you don’t have a receipt, bring your ID, as well as your order number or the sender’s email address, and try to process the return with a Walmart employee.
Target will take back new and unopened items within 90 days of purchase. (If you paid via Red Card, you'll get 120 days.) Products from Target's own brands, like Wild Fable or Opalhouse, can be returned for a year. There are a couple of exceptions; electronics and entertainment items have a 30-day return window, and Apple products have a 15-day return window. During this holiday season, the return window begins on December 26 for electronics, entertainment items, and Apple products purchased after October 1.
Bring the receipt or packing slip. If the purchase was made on a non-Target credit card, you’ll get a refund reloaded to the original card. Alternatively, you can accept a refund by gift card.
GameStop accepts returns on most items that are brought back within 30 days. For the holiday season, gifts purchased after October 31 can be returned by January 15. Whether you purchased the product through the GameStop website or at a brick-and-mortar location, items can be returned online and in-store. Make sure to have a receipt or order number on hand for a streamlined return process.
Outdoor Retailers: The North Face, Patagonia, REI, Bass Pro Shops
The North Face allows returns in-person and through the mail within 60 days of purchase for store credit. Pack your item, sign in, fill out the gift return form if you didn't make the purchase yourself, then attach the packing slip and prepaid return label to your box.
Patagonia accepts returns in-store or by mail for store credit. Make sure the item is new, with tags still attached, then fill out the gift return form if necessary and follow the instructions from the page. If you don’t have the order number, fill out a return form and bring it, along with the item, to a Patagonia store.
REI accepts most returns and exchanges up to a year after purchase, with the exception of outdoor electronics. (Those need to be returned within 90 days.) Returns can be made by mail or in a store; exchanges need to be processed in a store. If you request a “gift recipient refund,” then your refund will be issued in the form of a mailed check. If you don’t have your receipt, REI can help identify proof of purchase if you can fill out a note sharing more details.
Bass Pro Shops allows mail and in-store returns for a refund up to 60 days after the initial purchase. An extended holiday return window let’s you bring back gifts that were purchased from November 2 through December 2 until January 31. Your ID and receipt are necessary for a straightforward return process. Products purchased at the retailer’s subsidiary, Cabela’s, can be returned to Bass Pro Shops and vice versa.
What If I Can’t Return It?
Maybe you dinged up the ebook reader or lost the receipt in a black hole. If your item is past the point of no return, there are plenty of ways to sustainably repurpose or resell unwanted gifts.
If the item is an issue, but the store isn't, consider looking into an exchange instead of an outright return. Sites like eBay and Decluttr can help you resell your used goods. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and the Offer Up app are options for selling in your area without shipping costs—but be sure to meet in a public place for safety. If you’re selling a phone, these sites will pay you the most money for it. Regifting is always an option for less-personal gifts.
If none of these strategies work for you, consider donating. Instead of trashing your unloved items, haul them to your local Goodwill.
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