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Receipts, tags, unopened boxes can ease gift returns

Before you get in line to return or exchange a gift, be prepared. These days, you might even need identification.

Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP/File 2012

Before you get in line to return or exchange a gift, be prepared. These days, you might even need identification.

The garish sweater from your aunt. The Chia Pet from your brother-in-law. The PlayStation game from a grandmother who forgot you have an Xbox. Getting rid of unwanted gifts is as much a holiday tradition as receiving them.

About one-third of consumers returned at least one gift last year, according to the National Retail Federation, and many still do it the old-fashioned way: at a store’s customer service counter.

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But before you get in line, take some basic steps to make it less aggravating.

Most crucially, if you received a receipt with your gift, keep it until you are sure you won’t be returning the item, said Edgar Dworsky, the Somerville-based founder of the consumer advocacy and education site ConsumerWorld.com.

“If you don’t have a gift receipt or a store receipt, you may be at the store’s mercy and only get the lowest price [the item] has sold for,” he said.

It is also essential that items destined to be returned remain as close to untouched as possible. Tags should be left on clothes, and electronics should not be removed from their packaging, said Barbara Anthony, the state’s undersecretary for consumer affairs and business regulation.

“Many stores will charge a restocking fee is the item has been taken out of its hermetically sealed packaging,” she said.

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Anthony also encourages gift-givers to do their part by holding on to receipts and any removed tags.

Consumers should not be surprised if they are also asked to show identification to complete a return. A growing number of stores use IDs in conjunction with receipts in an attempt to thwart fraud. Retailers expect to lose nearly $3.4 billion because of fradulent returns this holiday season, according to a National Retail Federation survey. That’s about 6 percent of all merchandise brought back to merchants.

Over the years, Dworsky said, return policies have grown ever more complex, with various return deadlines, receipt requirements, and potential fees.

“It really has gotten complicated and confusing,” he said.

Online return policies also vary widely. Amazon, for example, has a “return a gift” option on the site’s Online Returns Center page. To use it, you need an Amazon account. If you have a packing slip, enter the 17-digit order number to get started. You’ll receive a credit for the returned items, but in most cases Amazon will first deduct the shipping costs.

For a gift that did not come with a slip, you’ll have to contact Amazon and supply information such as the sender’s name, e-mail address, and phone number. It’s just to track down the product — not to let the giver know that you weren’t impressed.

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is allowing returns on anything shipped between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 until the end of January, as long as the items are in new condition and include original packaging and accessories.

Massachusetts law places few restrictions on return policies, Anthony said. But retailers are supposed to post their policies in a clear and visible location in stores.

Many skirt that rule, however, printing policies on receipts or posting fine-print signs at registers, Dworsky said.

“If the store has not posted the policy then they’re not in a position to make demands of you as a consumer,” Anthony said.

Retailers in Massachusetts are also bound by something known as the “implied warrant of merchantability,” she said.

Put simply: If it doesn’t work, the store has to take it back and provide a replacement, repairs, or a refund. Declaring that an item is sold “as is,” Anthony noted, does not exempt retailers from this rule.

If consumers believe a store is violating either of these rules, Anthony encourages them to print out the Black Friday Shopper’s Guide from the Consumer Affairs website, www.mass.gov/ocabr, and present it to the shop’s manager.

“Usually when confronted with that kind of proof, store managers will acquiesce and permit the return,” she said.

Dissatisfied shoppers can also call the state consumer hotline at 888-283-3757.

Dworsky and Anthony, however, both recommend first taking a polite but firm approach to solve a dispute over a return.

“This time of year, stores bend over backward to try to please customers if they can,” Dworsky said.

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.

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