It's OK if your boyfriend doesn't like the digital camera you bought him. So long as he doesn't open the box.
As you begin your holiday shopping, remember that return policies vary greatly, even among products from the same store. For example, some retailers charge a 15 percent restocking fee on digital cameras and other electronics if the packaging is unsealed. That's even if the items weren't used.
Policies may differ from what you remember, too. Many retailers have loosened rules to boost sales, but others are tightening them to protect against losses in the downturn. So before you start shopping, be sure you're aware of the hassles you could be leaving under the tree.
WATCH THE CLOCK
Most stores require returns to be made within a certain time. Some major chains, including Sears, Target and Walmart, allow as many as 90 days to return most items. Smaller retailers usually permit far less, often 10 days or two weeks.
There can also be numerous exceptions within a store policy. Electronics usually need to be returned much sooner, and the specifics can vary depending on the product. At Best Buy, for example, you have 14 days to return a computer, but 30 days for a printer.
"Retailers are slicing and dicing return policies," said Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "It's hard to find a store now that has a flat 30-day or 90-day policy."
Some stores roll out special holiday policies to give people more time to make returns. Other stores set deadlines in mid- to late January for the return of unwanted gifts. Once you find out the policy, consider including the information at the bottom of a card for the recipient.
It should be noted that Costco and Kohl's have unlimited return policies year-round on most items _ but such leniency is not the norm. Others stores might say all sales are final.
HOLD ON TO RECEIPTS
Always include a gift receipt, which omits the price you paid. It seems minor, but the gesture can prevent headaches at the counter.
That's particularly true if you want to be sure the person gets an exchange of equal value. Chances are the sweater you buy your niece will be marked down after Christmas. Without a receipt, she may only be credited with the sale price.
Or you can hold on to the receipt if the gift is for immediate family. If your husband doesn't like the tie you pick, you can get your money back and buy him something else.
If you don't have a receipt, larger chains, including Target, can use your credit or debit card to look up how much you paid and give you an even return or exchange.
Even with a receipt, of course, your options may be limited. Some stores only give cash refunds by mailing you a check. This typically happens when an expensive item is purchased with cash, or if you want money back on a gift.
Gift cards are another instance when there's little room for negotiation; most stores won't offer a refund.
BE AWARE OF FEES
Restocking fees of 15 percent or more can add up quickly. The fee on an $800 laptop, for instance, could be $120 or more. The lesson? Even if you want to "ooh and aah" over a present to show your appreciation, be sure it's for keeps before you tear into the packaging.
Restocking fees are most common among electronics, but they come with other products as well. Such fees might seem unfair if the merchandise hasn't been used, but stores charge them because shoppers tend to prefer factory-sealed products.
Another way you might lose money is if you buy gifts online. Shipping and handling charges typically aren't credited back with returns, and you may also have to foot the costs to mail the items back. That's the case at Amazon, which requires that most items be returned within 30 days. Otherwise, you only get 80 percent of the purchase price back.
ASK FOR AN ACCOMMODATION
Before you try to return a gift you're not happy with, go to the store's Web site and read the policy to see if you're within your rights.
Even if you're not _ say you missed the deadline _ your case isn't hopeless. Managers usually have the discretion to bend the rules, so go in with a pleasant attitude and make your case.
Stores might be more lenient with good customers, too. So tactfully let the manager know if you have a store credit or rewards card. After all, the last thing stores wants to do right now is breed ill will with regular customers.