11 Things That Might Surprise You About Store Returns

What happens to stuff you bring back to the store? Do retailers really notice if you make too many returns? Your questions about returns, refunds, and receipts, answered!
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Whether returning a single item or a pile of impulse buys that you’ll never use, taking items back to the store always feels like a daunting task. Are you still in the return window? Do you still have the receipt? Are you prepared to go head-to-head with a store employee? Some of these potential scenarios are nothing short of stress-inducing.

The more you know about store returns, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to bring items back without causing a scene. Take note of these common return policies at popular stores so you’ll be better prepared the next time you get in that customer service line.

1. Holiday return windows may be longer than normal.

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The average return window for stores in the U.S. is 30 days, a span of time that enables the store to resell the item while it’s still in season. This regular return window is usually the default from January to Black Friday.

Retail businesses typically make a lot of their money during the holiday season. To catch early seasonal shoppers out buying gifts, many retailers will try to incentivize customers by offering sales or a longer return window, usually around 90 days. Every retailer has its own holiday return policy, which you will find on the receipt or on signs posted in the store. Take advantage of any longer holiday return windows, especially on items you aren’t sure you will keep.

2. Some retailers have generous return policies.

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Some stores have seemingly magical return policies. Here are a few worth noting:

  • Nordstrom allows refunds for any item with no time limit. Although a receipt will make it easier to process your return, it’s not required.
  • Bath and Body Works allows customers to return any product for any reason. If you gambled on a fragrance and didn’t pick a winner, you can return it with no questions asked. If you have a receipt, you get a full refund. Without a receipt, you can make an exchange or get store credit.
  • Costco is well known for its liberal return policies. Because the store wants you to be completely satisfied, it will refund the purchase price of any product. As a member, your account shows your purchases, so you don’t need a receipt.
  • Ulta allows you to return any item for any reason. If you don’t like a product, you can return it and find something you love instead.

RELATED: 5 Secrets to Know Before Shopping at Costco

3. You might be able to negotiate a missed return window.

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If you shop on Amazon, you already know they won’t accept items after the return window passes.

Other retailers’ return policies vary. Depending on the business, these policies range from offering the item’s current price to providing a store credit or a refund on a case-by-case basis. Life gets busy, and empathetic customer service representatives may be more flexible about a return window if you are polite and patient, and understand that the company does not have to grant your wish.

4. You can sometimes score a price adjustment for items that went on sale after you purchased them.

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If you recently made a purchase after a lot of hemming and hawing, only to see the item go on sale right after you brought it home, you might be able to land that lower price. If you find yourself in this situation, take your purchase to the customer service desk and ask for a price adjustment. Bring the receipt, and explain that you would like to pay the lower price for your recently purchased item. Target, Kohl’s, Macy’s, and Walmart are just a few retailers that offer price adjustments. Note that price adjustments apply only to recent purchases, not something you bought a long time ago.

If a store won’t credit the difference between the price you paid and the sale price and you’re still within the return window, there is a work-around: Simply return the item and then go repurchase it at the reduced price.

RELATED: 20 Things You Should Stop Wasting Money on in 2024

5. Some returned items are simply destroyed.

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When you return an item, what does the store do with it? Generally, if it is unopened and in new condition, it can go back on the shelf. If there are minor defects—dents or dings—the item might go to the store’s clearance or sale rack.

Among larger retailers, it is common practice to destroy and throw away returns, particularly for products that are returned because they’re flawed. Some companies, such as Amazon, might tell you to keep the unwanted item and issue you a refund without you having to return the product.

RELATED: 11 Retail Stores That Match Competitors’ Prices

6. Seek out shops that sell returned items at a discount.

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Shopping for returned items saves you a lot of money and helps keep useful products out of landfills. Places like KrazyBins offer returns to the public at a discount. These types of stores have a tiered pricing system, with prices lowered each day. If you don’t live near any stores like KrazyBins, there are many online outlets for returned items. In addition, Target, Amazon, Walmart, and others offer their returned merchandise for sale, and you can find entire pallets of items for low prices.

RELATED: 13 Retailers You Never Knew Would Recycle Your Old Stuff

7. Some online retailers make their return processes easy.

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Online shopping is fun and convenient, but it’s often a gamble. Until your purchase arrives, you don’t know if it works or fits, or if it’s as good as its advertising. If you aren’t sure about an item, always check out the return policies on the online retailer’s website before clicking “order now.”

Companies like Amazon and Zappos simplify returns for online purchases. For Amazon, just go into your account orders and let the site walk you through the return. Zappos also offers exchanges, if you love the shoes but need a half size larger.

One of our favorite hacks for making online returns easier is to reuse the packaging the item came in. To save the time you might otherwise spend removing the ultra-sticky shipping labels, flip the bag inside out so the interior becomes the outside. Place the item to be returned in the bag, tape it shut, and send it off.

RELATED: 14 Store Policies You Should Be Taking Advantage Of

8. You sometimes can return items without a receipt.

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Each store has a specific policy for returns without a receipt, so don’t expect every vendor to be equally accommodating. That said, Walmart, Target, and Kroger are three retailers that offer similar return policies for items returned without a receipt. Walmart offers exchange, cash back if the item is less than $10, or a gift card. Target offers refunds in the form of a merchandise return card (similar to a gift card). Kroger offers returns on gift cards for anything above $10; anything less than this amount is eligible for a cash refund.

Some stores can look up your purchase via your debit or credit card and a piece of ID to verify who you are. Stores like The Home Depot might have more generous policies for returns without a receipt if you used their credit card for the purchase. In general, retailers may offer a variety of solutions for products without a receipt, so it is best to check each company’s policies before you try to make a return.

RELATED: 10 Home Depot Shopping Secrets Only the Savviest DIYers Know About

9. Stores with digital receipts can verify purchases.

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There are a couple ways you might have access to digital receipts for your purchases: Many retailers, including Gap, Nordstrom, and The Home Depot, will ask you at the point of sale if you want an emailed receipt.

Other stores have mobile apps to which you can link a credit card. If you then use that credit card for an online or in-store purchase, retailers such as Target and Macy’s will link your receipt to your mobile app.

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10. Quality guarantees can ease the return process.

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Clothing stores may have quality guarantees—in other words, if a purchase doesn’t match your expectations, you can return it with no questions asked. Places like Lululemon and Hanna Andersson have a “quality promise,” through which customers can return products that don’t perform as expected (for example, the leggings pill or a seam rips). Target brand Cat & Jack offers a 1-year guarantee. To help make returns hassle-free, always check out the store’s guarantees.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Furnish Your Home at Target on a Budget

11. Retailers track serial returners.

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If you’re in the habit of buying lots of items only to return most of them, you might want to improve your shopping behavior. Retailers watch for serial returners, who practice what’s called “bracketing”—ordering multiple colors, sizes, or models of a product to choose the one they like best and then sending the rest back. Some online retailers, including Asos, state in their return policy that they may even blacklist serial returners.