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Gather up gifts and get in line

Published December 20, 2006

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Cheryl Stacks shops for her two sons and a nephew while at Kohl's in Clearwater on Nov. 24.

My grandmother, rest her soul, was a serial shopper.

Once a retail buyer for a Cleveland department store, she shopped with conviction year-round well into her 70s. Every Christmas she wowed me with her toy choices. But by the time I got to high school, her clothing gift record had sunk to more whiffs than hits. There was the shirt jacket that looked like something out of West Side Story. She gave me a silk aloha shirt three decades before my generation considered Hawaiian garb cool.

I dredge up these memories to offer a tip for the final throes of the Christmas shopping rush. Let's be careful out there, people! You're likely buying stuff that will force someone you care about to fight the returns line next week.

Wrong color. Wrong size. I already have one. What was he thinking?

The fact is, Americans are generous but can be lousy at picking gifts. Stores used to help narrow the misfires by showering customers with suggestions. But in this time of self-service and online research, today's harried shoppers are on their own more than ever.

It shows. One in six holiday gifts will be returned this holiday, estimates the National Retail Federation. It's so bad that 13 percent of gift-getters expect to repack their losers for regifting to someone else, according to a Consumer Reports survey. Nobody knows how many more duds will be accepted with faked gratitude, then tossed in a corner of the closet.

Excuses abound. Harris Interactive found that 25 percent of male and 14 percent of female holiday shoppers are so stressed for this week's rush that they expect to "buy anything just to buy something."

That's a rarely mentioned reason why no-muss, no-fuss gift cards will be the most popular site under the tree again. Forecast to be 5 percent of all sales this holiday and on the list of 55 percent of all shoppers, gift cards are a safe choice when it's the least thought that counts.

"They're seen as impersonal even though research shows more people prefer to get a gift card than buy one," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research.

Once, returning goods was easy. Department stores even accepted stuff they didn't sell in fear of offending a customer. Wal-Mart and Target made no-hassle returns a key part of their formula.

But with refund fraud expected to hit $3.9-billion, or about 9 percent of all returned merchandise this holiday season, retailers are getting more tight-fisted.

No refund without a receipt is the new standard. Exchanges frequently must be done within a month and often require a receipt. Some stores shrank the return period to as little as two weeks after Christmas.

If the item is now on sale, don't expect an exchange at full price. Some electronics come laden with 15 to 20 percent restocking fees.

Thieves use bogus receipts to try to get cash returning stolen merchandise. Many shoppers - called wardrobers - buy a dress, wear it one night, then return it to buy another over and over. So some stores now require dresses worn even once be dry-cleaned.

Shoppers are finding returns are a privilege, not a right.

Sure, the stores risk losing customers. But about two-thirds of rebuffed shoppers return to the same stores within two months, according to the Return Exchange, a national database.

The exchange, which is used by many chain retailers, tracks shopper return behavior like credit reporting firms tally debt. Return too much or in a suspicious pattern, and stores may cut you off.

So even if you're trying to return that wacky Hawaiian shirt your grandmother bought, you'll get little more back than sympathy.

Mark Albright can be reached at or 727 893-8252.

Many happy returns

Here's how to ease your gift recipients' time in return purgatory.

- Keep receipts, rebate forms, boxes and packaging. Once it's clear a receipt isn't needed, destroy it so thieves don't use it.

- Ask for gift receipts that don't show the purchase price. Only 49 percent of shoppers wrap them with gifts.

- Check written return policies to be sure you know what options you pass along with a gift. Some retailers have different rules for stores and their own Internet site. Read the fine print so you know before you give a gift who pays for packaging and shipping to send it back. Print out electronic confirmations of online purchases to help.

[Last modified December 20, 2006, 00:44:48]

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