So what's the one thing customers can do to expedite the return process?
"It really helps if they have a receipt," Arnold said.
Chain stores echo that sentiment time and again. It is a good idea to check the website of a retailer to learn about return policies before actually heading to the store or mailing back a gift purchased on the Internet. Return rules, though similar in most cases, differ enough that it is good to know what to expect.
Target, for example, says it requires a receipt for all returns and exchanges. Most returns must be made within 90 days. Exceptions to that rule are clearly noted on the shelf or printed on a customer's receipt.
"We realize guests may misplace receipts, so we offer two options to make returning merchandise easier," said Target's Antoine LaFromboise.
Target uses a receipt look-up function that tracks its customers' transactions if they used credit, debit, check or GiftCard for their purchase. That qualifies as a return. If that doesn't work, Target gives guests the option to exchange new and unused merchandise for a product of equal value or use the credit toward the purchase of an item of greater value within the same merchandise department.
Some retailers try to be as accommodating as possible when it comes to returns. Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski said his company will accept for return or exchange any merchandise that does not completely satisfy its customer. In virtually all cases, there is no time limit for returns.
"In accepting returns, our goal is to refund the original price paid whenever possible," Sluzewski said. "We ask customers to keep their receipt, gift receipt or the merchandise return label attached to every item when it is sold. If there is no receipt and we are unable to determine the actual price paid, we will refund the lowest selling price on that item within the last 180 days."
Macy's tries to make the process easier by placing a sticker on each of its products called a merchandise return label. It contains a bar code that tracks the original purchase information.
Walmart's normal return policy is that while most items can be returned within 90 days, some must be returned between 15 and 30 days from the date of purchase. Walmart extends that during the holidays by starting the return clock on Dec. 26 for any purchases made on or after Nov. 1. Items must be returned in the original manufacturer's packaging.
JCPenney's policy is that all items can be returned or exchanged for a refund to the original method of payment if the customer can produce a receipt. With no receipt, the company will offer a refund or exchange within 45 days, though furniture, jewelry, custom mini-blinds and electronics have different rules. And perishable food, gift cards, altered items or personalized gifts cannot be returned.
Online retail gian Amazon usually offers refunds on returns from 30 days after purchases, but makes a holiday exception for items purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. In that case, they must be returned by Jan. 31.
Amazon has somewhat stricter rules than some of the brick-and-mortar retail chains. To return an item, the product must be in its original packaging. Shoes and clothing cannot have been worn and musical instruments, televisions and consumer electronics must have a UPC tag or receipt number. There are different rules for a number of items as well listed on the website.
Though many retailers have liberal policies and will take back virtually anything, some draw the line when an item has been used or worn. Defective products are one thing, but returning an item without original packaging that has obviously been used might be a problem.
The best advice is to keep all receipts, retain original packaging, don't wear or use a return item and keep all tags in place. If there is a question about returns, go to a retailer's website and do a search for "return policies" so you know what you might need before trying to make an exchange.
In order to return gifts or other merchandise successfully most retailers recommend that you:
• Provide receipts if possible.
• Retain and return merchandise in original packaging.
• Do not wear or use the merchandise and keep all tags and labeling in place.
• Check the retailer's return policy before attempting to return items.