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The Boston Globe

Business

Consumer Alert

Timing, and a receipt, are important for gift returns

Your mother-in-law bought you one wicked ugly sweater and the toaster you got is the same one that’s sitting on your countertop. If you’re like an awful lot of folks post-holiday, you’ll be heading to exchange or return gifts that just didn’t make the cut.

Wise consumers will wait a few days to avoid the initial rush — but won’t drag it out too long. Some holiday gift return periods end in the next two weeks or so.

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Whether this will be a simple experience that gets you the full value of the returned item largely depends on whether the gift-giver provided a receipt. “It is absolutely reasonable for a store to require the consumer to prove that the item came from their store, that it was purchased on such and such a date, and for what amount,” says Ed Dworsky of Somerville, who runs the consumer information and advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org.

A gift receipt will allow you to get an even exchange or a store credit, he says. “Don’t expect either cash back or a credit card credit. Only the original purchaser is likely to get that kind of full refund with the original receipt.”

Big-box retailers, including Target and Walmart, allow customers a certain number of returns without receipts. But there is a limit on the value as well as the time frame.

“If you are going back to the store without a receipt or gift receipt, you will be at the mercy of the store,” says Dworsky. “You may get nothing at all or perhaps the lowest price the item has sold for in the recent past, such as the past 90 days.”

It’s a different story in you are taking back a product that is defective rather than just tasteless. Dworsky reminds Massachusetts consumers that they are entitled to a repair, replacement, or refund if they return a defective product — no matter what the posted return policy is.

If you run into a problem at the store on a return, ask for a manager. If that doesn’t go well, you can file a complaint with the state attorney general — if you don’t want to end up with an extra toaster and live with that ugly sweater.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.

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