A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

BBB Trends: Cash in gift cards while returning the ugly sweater — but be aware of return policies

By Sandra Guile
Better Business Bureau

The first few weeks after the busy holiday season could include using new gift cards, returning presents that weren’t quite right, or exchanging items that just aren’t your style.

Retailers are ready for this influx of activity and typically offer post-holiday sales to encourage the use of gift cards. However, they also tend to tighten their return policies at the same time. There are a few details consumers should keep in mind to avoid issues with their gift cards or company return policies during their New Year’s shopping sprees.

According to giftcards.com, at least one-third of the annual $100 billion spent purchasing gift cards is spent during the holiday season. While many people who receive a gift card use it right away, some people may decide to wait for an opportunity to utilize their card. On average, $2 billion worth of gift cards go unused every year, as reported by the National Retail Federation, and this inactivity can cause issues for both retailers and consumers. BBB receives numerous questions and complaints about what to do when a gift card is lost or stolen or what to do with an outstanding gift card for a business going bankrupt.

Many people don’t realize is that federal rules govern gift card sales. These rules cover potential issues like long-term inactivity or a missing or stolen card. Gift cards that have been purchased or reloaded with additional money can’t expire for at least five years, and any expiration dates must be clearly indicated on the card. If in that time a retailer files for bankruptcy, they may still be required to honor the card or they refer customers to a competitor who will fulfill the remaining balance.

While retailers have to follow the rules when it comes to gift cards, customers are the ones who have to obey the instructions for return policies – especially during post-holiday sales restrictions.

BBB recommends that consumers read the return/exchange policies thoroughly before heading to the store. Return policies for holiday and clearance items may be different than those for items sold at regular price; the same can be said for merchandise sold online. Every store has a unique policy, so it’s important to understand it before attempting to return or exchange something.

After reviewing the retailer’s policies, find the gift receipt for the item, and – if possible – gather the original packaging or tags. In an effort to deter shoplifters who return stolen merchandise for cash, many retailers deny returns without a receipt. However, even though stores require a receipt for a monetary payout, customers may be able to get store credit or an exchange for something of similar value without one.

Most retailers have a fixed time frame for how long a consumer can bring back unwanted pieces, to determine the time frame for returns and exchanges on your items. The policies that determine what can be brought back also apply to the length of time people have, so clearance or sale items may also be under a different time frame than regular items. It’s best not to wait too long; make plans to travel to the store and trade in your items as soon as possible.

Additionally, some retailers may charge a restocking fee for returns on electronic products or large-ticket items. If you plan on returning a high-tech or expensive gift, keep the original packaging.

When returning a gift that was purchased online, some customers may not be refunded for the original shipping fee; some may even be required to pay a separate shipping charge to send the item back. Depending on the retailer’s policy, the merchandise may be returned at a brick-and-mortar store but they’ll still charge for the cost of shipping the item.

Now that the holidays are over and stores are offering steady sales, make the best use of your gifts – whether that means using those gift cards or returning those less-than-ideal presents. Before heading out to a store, use the retailer’s website to check their return policy and visit bbb.org to look up their Business Profile.

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