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Dealing with Not-So-Happy Return Policies

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Dealing with Not-So-Happy Return Policies

Dealing with Not-So-Happy Return Policies

Dealing with Not-So-Happy Return Policies

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Many retailers are getting tougher on customers who want to return items. Day to Day personal finance contributor Michelle Singletary talks with Madeleine Brand about why stores have changed their return policies, and how consumers can fight back.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News it's DAY TO DAY. We've all done it. You're in the mall and you just have to, have to, have to have that certain something. But then you get it home. It doesn't really fit. It doesn't really work. Or you look again at the price tag and think I want to take it back.

Well, that's getting tougher. Some retailers are actually charging customers for bringing back items and tracking people who are chronic returners. Joining me today to discuss this is Michelle Singletary. She is DAY TO DAY's regular guest for conversations about personal finance. Hi, Michelle.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Hi.

BRAND: So why is it becoming more difficult for consumers to return items?

SINGLETARY: Really, return fraud has become a major problem for retailers. Stores lost $16 billion - that's billion with a B - to bogus returns in 2003, which is the latest figure available. So many retailers are trying to impose certain rules and track returns to stem a lot of this fraud.

BRAND: What, you're saying its fraud?

SINGLETARY: Yes. People will steal items and then try to take them back to stores. I mean, there's all kinds of scams about how they get these products and then return them. And so retailers are trying to do what they can to stem a lot of the return fraud.

BRAND: Oh, I see. So, are their government policies, any government rules about store return policies?

SINGLETARY: Generally, the states require the stores to post their return policy. They don't dictate what that policy should be, that is determined by the store. But at least they have to post it on something very clear for the consumer to see before they make the purchase.

BRAND: Now what is the relatively new phenomenon called a re-stocking fee?

SINGLETARY: Basically, they charge you a fee to put something back on the shelf - typically about 15 percent. Initially, this restocking fee was on electronic equipment like cameras, phones, cell phones, digital cameras, computers, because they say it takes them effort to repackage them and put them on the shelves. Certain electronic equipment they can't sell as new if you return it. So they're charging you for that.

And a lot of it is to discourage you from returning items. Let's say you bought an item for about a $1,000, and if they charge you a 15 percent restocking fee, that's a 150 bucks. I think you might think twice about returning it.

BRAND: So, stores don't want you to return items. That's understandable from a business point of view. But, you know, from a consumer point of view, let's say you just can't have this item. It doesn't work well. It's the wrong color, the wrong size. It costs too much in the first place. How can you return an item? What are your tips?

SINGLETARY: Well, if the item is defective, generally speaking they will waive the restocking fee because it's not your fault. If it's because you didn't like the color or you just decided you didn't want it anymore, you're going to have to pay that restocking fee. Very rarely do they waive it under those conditions.

But this is what you need to do, especially if it's an expensive item and there is a restocking fee: you better do all your research and do it before you purchase the item. The other thing is you want to keep your sales receipt. You know, this sounds so simple, but a lot of folks sort of throw it away or they misplace it. That's the key to making sure the return goes as smoothly as possible.

Keep all the original packaging, I mean everything in there: the warranty, the little cards, the little tag, especially on clothes. You want to keep all those tags and take them back to the store with you.

If you're giving something as a gift, make sure you get the gift receipt, because in that case if it doesn't fit or if it's not the right item, they're more likely to waive the restocking fee because it was a gift.

BRAND: Michelle Singletary is our regular guest for conversations about personal finance. Her latest book is Your Money and Your Man: How you and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich. Michelle, thank you.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

BRAND: And if you have a money question for Michelle, go to our Web site npr.org, click on the contact us link that's at the top of every page and be sure to include Michelle in your subject line.

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