How To Make The Most Out Of Your Gift Returns

Serial gift returners, you know who you are. The post-holidays are the season of returns, and whether you’re a repeat offender or a newbie, you want to make sure you squeeze the absolute most out of your give-backs. Maybe someone gave you a gift card from a store that isn’t quite your style. A well-meaning aunt gifted a knit in the wrong size, or you just plain don’t like your present and want something more you — like money. There are a multitude of reasons to return and almost as many strategies to doing it right, even if you don’t have that precious receipt. Read on for insider tips on getting the most bang for your mom's/friend's/lover's buck, and then hit the shops with your revised wish list in tow.
ILLUSTRATED BY ELLIOT SALAZAR.
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What to do before you start returning.
Hopefully it’s not too late, but remember to be very careful when unwrapping your gifts to not damage the box or contents. Keep the original packaging, especially with that new iPhone and other tech-y items. Don’t use, wear, or damage the gift if you’re even thinking about returning it.
Now's the time to do a little recon on the retailer's website. Is there a time limit? Some brands give you 30 days to exchange or return, while Nordstrom has no expiration date (and no official return policy, either; store staff assesses on a case-by-case basis). While you're there, see what you stand to get back: gift card, store credit or, in very rare instances, cash. Walmart allows cash refunds for returns under $25 (even without a receipt). Famous one-time cash-giver (beloved by wedding over-registerers everywhere) Bed Bath & Beyond has changed its policy and is no longer doling out bills. Finally, for online gift orders, see if you can return in-store, too.
Save your gift receipts.
In an ideal situation, your gifter also provided you with a convenient gift receipt. (If not, sit tight.) That slip of paper ensures a smoother return process, and guarantees you'll be entitled to a refund of the original price, even if the item's since gone on sale (which likely everything will have, the other best part of this week). “The retailer must give you the return or exchange for the original value the item was purchased,” says shopping expert Andrea Woroch. She recommends the OneReceipt app to scan and store all your paper receipts (also handy for those gifts you gave yourself), especially if the ones you actually need tend to disappear into thin air, while proof of your daily Starbucks habit is thisclose to making your wallet explode.
What to do if you don’t have a gift receipt.
Check to see if the gift still has the tags. “Some retailers, like Nordstrom and Macy’s, use specific barcodes on the items that act like receipts, so you’re essentially covered and won’t lose the value on an item that may have gone down in price after it was purchased,” Woroch says. Otherwise, you could still get store credit for a return (depending on the store's exchange policy), but may be stuck with the current or lowest sale price.
Charlie Graham, CEO and founder of Shop It To Me, the app that keeps track of when your coveted fashion items go on sale, has a few more tips for gifts purchased online. “Call the store's online support and let them know you want to return the item but lost the gift receipt,” he says. “Many online retailers can find your receipt based on the address it was shipped to.” If going to the brick-and-mortar store is an option, head over and tell the sales associate your predicament; they may feel the holiday spirit and help you out. In a potentially awkward move: If you’re on friendly terms with the person who gave you the gift, explain yourself and ask for the receipt. “This works better if you just need the item in a different size or color, of course,” he says, possibly with a wink.
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How to decide whether to return your gift in-store or online.
If you can return an item purchased online at the brick-and-mortar store, Woroch suggests that option to avoid shipping fees — unless you were also gifted with a prepaid return label, of course. For example, Topshop, Gap, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s all allow in-store returns for online orders. H&M does not (it also deducts $5.95 from your return for shipping). In that event, Woroch suggests calling the company to ask for a refund of the mail costs — it can’t hurt to ask.
If you’re returning in-store, make sure to bring in a government-issued ID. Some places, like Nordstrom and H&M, check IDs to keep track of serial returners. Also, keep your attitude in check when you’re face-to-face with a sales associate. “Remember to be pleasant but firm,” advises Matthew Ong, senior retail analyst at Nerdwallet. “If you get frustrated, you make life much more difficult with whatever store employee you’re dealing with, and you lower your odds of success.”
Beware of restocking fees.
This is more applicable to electronic items than, say, a J.Crew dress, but some stores charge from 10% to 25% of the product value to “restock” it. (This helps the retailer recoup costs of repackaging an opened item or making back any money lost to resell it at a sale price.) One way to avoid such a fee is selling your new, unused item on eBay for the full price.
After the return: Make the most of your store credit or gift card.
Most likely you’ll end up with store credit or a gift card in exchange for your gift, so you’ll want to optimize your spending power at that location.
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“Making a return or exchange during sale season will ensure you get more out of it,” Woroch says. But, don’t make spontaneous purchases. If the gift card's burning a hole in your pocket, try to use part of it for a small gift-to-self and save the rest for a rainy day. If you have your eye on something specific, do an online price comparison to determine if you’re getting the best price where you are. If it's significantly cheaper elsewhere, perhaps wait for another sale or move on to other items that give you a better deal at the same store.
Try the RedLaser barcode scanner or ShopStyle app to get that info on the spot. “Track price drops even after you return or exchange with PoachIt or SnapUp apps,” Woroch says. “The tools will alert you if the item you recently got in exchange goes on sale as you may be able to get a price adjustment and get even more bang from your return.”
Coupons or discount codes can help you capitalize on savings even more. Woroch likes CouponSherpa.com for online coupon codes or printable coupons to stores like Bloomingdale's, Madewell and Neiman Marcus (it also has a mobile app). If you’re shopping online with your gift card, you’re probably already quite familiar with RetailMeNot, CouponCabin, and good old Google to check for discount codes. Woroch also suggests redeeming any loyalty points you may have in addition to using your gift card.
Of course, there are rules to the gift card.
“Consumers should watch out for the fees on prepaid gift cards,” says NerdWallet’s Ong. “Prepaid cards often come with hidden fees like point-of-sale fees, monthly maintenance fees, and reloading fees.” (He also shares a valuable tip for buying gift cards: They are not subject to sales tax, so make sure the store isn’t charging that!)
Woroch enlightens us to the CARD (Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure) Act that protects consumers using gift cards. Basically, the legislation ensures that gift cards can’t expire for five years and are exempt from inactivity fees for one year. Nice. But, Ong warns that if you received a gift card that comes from a “buy-one-get-one-free deal,” those aren’t often subject to CARD’s limitations, and you may not be able to tell by just looking at the envelope.
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Once that year is up, Woroch warns that inactivity fees may kick in. “So, you may be better off selling those otherwise you’re wasting money,” she says about gift cards you don’t intend to use. Finally: money.
Yes, you can sell your gift cards for actual money.
Woroch cites that 81% of shoppers will gift those damn cards during the holidays, so chances are, you’ll be receiving a few. And no, you cannot return the gift card to the issuing store for cash, but you can sell those bad boys elsewhere.
“Consumers can sell or trade gift cards that they don’t really want,” says Ong. “There are many specialized gift card exchange sites online, and sites like eBay are also options for selling gift cards.” With these online marketplaces, you can sell your unwanted cards for a percentage of the value. You can also shop around for cards from stores you’re actually interested in, too. Ong likes Raise.com and Cardpool.com, especially if you’re a newbie to selling gift cards. Fox Business also suggests online exchange GiftCards.com, which offers buyer safeguards — like taking down credit card information from the seller — to insure the transaction.
There’s also GiftCardGranny.com, which runs an annual Gift Card Exchange Day, on December 26 (that's right, it's happening right now). GiftCardGranny.com spokesperson Kendal Perez says that sellers can recoup an average return of 70% to 75% of the value of their gift card, while top ticket cards (usually gas, groceries, and multi-category stores like Target and Amazon) can score up to 93% of the value. The more fashion-y gift card offerings include Zara, Piperlime, and Tiffany & Co.
In terms of the best time to sell your gift card, that's up for discussion. Perez says that users might see a better return on the day after Christmas. “Resellers' inventories are lower as a result of the popularity of gift cards as a gift,” she says, while hedging that it also depends on the type of holiday season resellers have had. However, Ong suggests holding onto your gift cards until later. “It's worth waiting since the market will be flooded with gift cards at the end of December and in early January,” he says, "making pricing more favorable for buyers, not sellers.” It also depends on how antsy you are to unload that card, but food for thought either way.
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Now that you've been fully debriefed, go out there and return that gift like the smart shopper you are. It's what your aunt/coworker/misguided S.O. would want.
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