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The right way to return, exchange gifts bought online

·Marlene Skaff

Have you ever bought something and later found out that it can’t be returned?

It can happen any time of year and is something many of us will be dealing with now that the holidays are wrapping up. The growth in online shopping interest, in particular, has added a new and sometimes complicated twist to returning and exchanging purchases ... think restocking fees and shortened windows for returns.

But Canadian merchants, and e-retailers in particular, have become more “aggressive and generous in their return policies," says Jean-Yves Menard, advisory partner, consumer goods and retail, for the professional services firm KPMG.

Canadians purchased $18.9 billion in online goods and services last year, an increase of 24 per cent over 2010, according to Statistics Canada, with holiday-driven Black Friday and Cyber Monday especially lucrative. Menard says from his Montreal office that Canadian e-merchants are going out of their way to woo consumers in an effort to become prominent online players, but many are experiencing growing pains.

“What has really opened up e-retailing is you can order a bunch of products, have them sent to your place and then can return any products you don’t want free,” he says. “The shipping charges are somehow included either in the pricing or in the one-way shipping charges, and are being taken care of if you do return a portion of your purchase.

“But overall, there are a lot of retailers who do suffer in terms of profitability because of that business model – they have not mastered the right mix in terms of pricing and return charges.”

Such concerns have given rise to strategies by online merchants to cut down on the chance of returns. They include being part of the trend of opening physical locations – such as full-service showrooms and pop-up display stores - where consumers can see, touch and feel items before purchasing them online.

It’s easier in many ways to buy from either brick-and-mortar stores or online retailers that also have physical locations. In fact, says Menard, retailers tend to prefer in-person returns, “because then it gives them the opportunity to sell you something else.”

But he cautions consumers: “If you’re dealing with franchisees, it should be a seamless return process, but it’s a little trickier if you’re dealing with items bought online and returned to corporate stores.”

Read the fine print

Return policies can be as varied as the merchants themselves, so experts urge reading the fine print – in-store or on merchant websites – and even calling to clarify any confusion before clicking the final purchase button.

Adrienne Down Coulson, general manager of the cash-back shopping site Ebates.ca, which has about 650 member shops, says reputable online stores tend to have “reasonable” return periods, for example, 30 or 60 days (usually from day of delivery).

“The biggest thing from a consumer’s perspective that’s an annoyance of online shopping is knowing if the merchant will cover the cost of your shipping,” she says from her Toronto office.

“The best ones will include prepaid shipping return labels” in orders delivered to customers, she says, adding clothing retailers Gap and Old Navy are among the best.

Other retailers may allow customers to print off return labels from the returns and refunds sections of their websites.

For larger purchases such as appliances, television sets and stereos, Down Coulson adds, some stores, including Wal-Mart, will even arrange to pick up items slated for return.

To reduce the risk of return/exchange hassles, here are some other tips:

Know who you’re buying for
Menard says it’ll go a long way in reducing the chance of a return or exchange. “Know your sister’s taste, size of shoe, colour and style preferences.” Ask family/friends if your gift recipient already owns that CD, book or tech toy, and try shopping at the gift recipient’s favourite store.

Learn who can take back a gift
It’s usually easier for the gift recipient to return/exchange something in person (normally requiring receipts), but online buys commonly require the purchaser to go through the process. However, some e-merchants (such as Amazon.ca) allow the gift recipient to log into a special returns section (you may need the order number), even if the order wasn’t marked as a gift when purchased.

Check fine print for return/refund exceptions
Don’t assume an online seller’s policy covers everything purchased on the website – return policies of marketplaces sellers such as those on sites like eBay may be at the discretion of the individual merchant.

Be cautious buying sale and personal items
Ask if sale items are returnable (many times they aren’t) or exchangeable. Swimwear, lingerie and other intimate apparel may not be returnable because of health rules.

Save receipts, original packaging and clothing tags
Save them for at least a month, in case whatever you bought rips, falls apart or breaks down within the return/exchange period. Sometimes retailers will take items back (more commonly for exchanges) even after the expiry date. Clothing stores often require that tags remain attached to returned items.