Tips for trouble-free tech product returns

Tech products can make great holiday gifts, for others or for yourself. But if you (or the gift recipient) aren’t happy with the product, your options vary widely depending on the merchant’s return policy—fine print that bargain hunters often ignore at their peril.

With return policies, just as with the products they cover, a little advance research can make the difference between a good experience and a disaster. Here are our best tips for navigating the sometimes rocky waters of returns, along with details on which stores make them easy and which make them tough.

Return Policies: The Good, the Bad, and the Run of the Mill

Generally speaking, Costco continues to reign supreme for returnistas, offering full refunds for anything unsatisfactory. The only deadlines for returns apply to electronics, from HDTVs and computers to MP3 players and iPods, which you must return within 90 days.

You can return products bought online to a local store, or Costco will send you a prepaid label for return shipping of items small enough to drop off at a UPS location. The company will also arrange for pickup of items that a freight service delivered. It doesn’t get much better than that for tech products.

Archrival Walmart imposes much stricter return deadlines (15 days for computers and post-paid cell phones, 30 days for camcorders and digital cameras, 45 days for computer components and accessories, 90 days for just about everything else). But Walmart does have one return policy that’s truly user-friendly: If you don’t have the receipt, the retailer will still take back your purchase (within the deadlines for the product category) and return cash for items under $25, a gift card for anything more expensive, or an even exchange either way. (If you return more than three items without receipts in a month, however, a manager must approve the transaction.)

On the other end of the returns scale for tech products is Best Buy. Its return window for computers (including laptops, netbooks, and tablets) is, at 14 days, even stingier than Walmart’s. The two-week return period begins on the date of purchase in its brick-and-mortar stores and the date of delivery for PCs bought online. For all other items, you get 30 days to act (or 45 days—even for computers—if you spend the $2500 a year at Best Buy that qualifies you for membership in the chain’s Reward Zone loyalty program at the elite Premiere Silver level).

When asked about the computer policy, Best Buy spokesperson Erin Bix e-mailed us a statement saying in part: “We carefully manage our inventory and selection so that consumers have access to the latest and greatest, which means in a practical sense needing to reduce the period for returns in some categories like computing.”

An NBC affiliate in Memphis, though, recently reported that a local store manager said the strict policy was a response to customer abuse of returns. “They buy them, use them for a week, then return them,” store manager Jason Sampson was quoted as saying on the NBC12.com Website.

Buy.com is leery about this sort of behavior: Its return policy states that it carefully inspects all items at the warehouse, and if they aren’t in pristine condition with all original packaging, you won’t get your money back or a replacement. Its normal return window is 45 days from the ship date, so you may have a month to act by the time the product actually arrives. The return policy states that the product doesn’t have to be in the company’s possession within 45 days, but it does have to be with the shipper by then, and you must have obtained a valid Return Merchandise Authorization number. Online merchants typically require you to obtain an RMA (either by calling in or going online) before sending back any products; it allows them to track what’s coming back and why.

Hooray for the Holidays

Many stores tout special holiday return policies that extend the standard return window for gifts purchased during the holiday season. Check for such policies, and pin down which purchase dates qualify. Best Buy is relatively generous here: For most gifts bought between November 1 and December 24, the return deadline is January 31. If you’re the recipient, you do have to prove that you got the item as a gift by showing a gift receipt, so make sure to obtain that from the person who gave the item to you (if they didn’t already pop it into the box). However, Best Buy specifically excludes computers from its holiday policy.

Walmart takes a different approach. For products bought between November 15 and December 25, the usual return time windows apply—but the clock starts ticking on December 25.

Amazon.com pledges to accept returns on items purchased between November 1 and December 31, through January 31. Recipients of items marked as gifts when purchased get a gift card for the value of the gift; buyers get refunds. Amazon’s standard return policies apply, though, and the site has literally dozens of them depending on the product and how it was bought. This is one site where you really have to put in time checking out return policies before you buy a gift.

Buy.com will also accept returns through January 31 on products it sells and ships between November 15 and December 31, but the policy does not apply to items purchased from its Marketplace Sellers (third-party affiliates).

Who Pays for Return Shipping?

When it comes to responsibility for return shipping costs, most vendors aren’t particularly generous. Buy.com, for example, will not pay shipping unless the return is the result of its error. Amazon will provide a prepaid shipping label for returns, but it too will deduct shipping costs from your refund unless it was at fault.

Some merchants, such as Sixth Avenue Electronics, will not only make you pay for return shipping on discretionary (buyer’s remorse) returns, but also for the original shipping costs (even if you took advantage of a free-shipping offer).

Other retailers will give you the option of either paying for shipping yourself or using a prepaid label and deducting the cost from the refund. In my experience, it’s difficult to match the bulk rate that these sellers get from shipping companies—and shopping around is time consuming. I usually opt for the prepaid label.

Don’t Touch the Shrinkwrap

Amazon and others will also deduct so-called restocking fees for many items they sell, especially once you’ve opened the manufacturer’s packaging. Some stores make it next to impossible to return CDs, DVDs, and/or Blu-ray discs if the shrinkwrap isn’t intact, so don’t open it if you don’t intend to keep it.

In general, it’s a good idea to keep all packaging materials together so that you can restore a product to as close to original condition as possible if you decide to send it back. You might put all the plastic casing, manuals, media, and accessories accompanying consumer electronics into a single large shopping bag, for example.

Restocking fees for computers and electronics typically run about 15 percent of the price you paid. You’re most likely to see restocking fees for discretionary returns at merchants that have the lowest Web prices—this is one way for them to finance those discounts. Keep that fact in mind if you’re buying a surprise gift the recipient might not want: They’ll be less than happy if your present winds up costing them money.

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