WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If you are left staring at a scratchy sweater that's a hideous shade of green once the gifts are opened, you could be headed to the dreaded return line.
Or for boxing the item and shipping it back to an online retailer.
Before making a return, though, check the store's policy on its website. Every retailer has its own policy. The basic rules: Return the item before the allowable time period expires, and have your receipt with you. Thoughtful gift givers make sure the receipt is included. Some retailers, such as Target and Macy's, can search for it in their system.
If you don't have the receipt, you might end being refunded the lowest markdown price. If the store can't be sure the item was purchased there, you will most likely be given nothing.
If you think you might return an item, leave it in its original box. If it is encased in Styrofoam, don't tamper with it.
Unless you like long lines, don't make the return on the day after Christmas.
Many retailers have tightened return policies, probably one reason there are not a lot of changes in return policies this year. The National Retail Federation says 83 percent of stores have kept policies the same, 10.2 percent have loosened them, and 7 percent have made them stricter.
Don't be offended if the clerk wants to see your identification. Stores aim to prevent fraudulent returns of stolen merchandise, returns using counterfeit receipts, or returns of used or worn items.
A National Retail Federation survey found that 97 percent of retailers polled say they have experienced the return of stolen merchandise in the last year, and 84 percent have experienced the return of merchandise purchased on fraudulent or stolen credit or debit cards. Wardrobing — returning used, nondefective merchandise like apparel — is a huge issue; nearly 69 percent say they have been victims.
Most stores have a general policy for merchandise with a receipt that covers such goods as clothing. They often have a list of merchandise subject to shorter return periods. That usually includes electronics. Restocking fees may also apply.
Walmart has a 90-day policy for most items. Most of the year, it has a 15-day return policy for computers, video game hardware, and GPS units, and a 30-day policy for merchandise such as lawn mowers and generators. For purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 for goods with a return policy of 15 or 30 days, Walmart extends the period by starting to count those days on Dec. 26.
JC Penney's policy is liberal: ''Happy returns, anytime, anywhere, it's that simple.'' With a receipt, items are eligible for exchange or refund of the purchase price on the original method of payment. No receipt? Then it's the current price, in the form of a gift card. And few stores will accept the return of a gift card.