When you say ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have!’ and mean it

The Providence Journal Illustration/Tom Murphy
The Providence Journal Illustration/Tom Murphy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — After Hanukkah and Christmas presents are opened this weekend, some gifts will go back to retailers.

“Returns season” begins tomorrow and continues into the new year. To avoid disappointment, consumers need to be aware of return policies, including deadlines that may differ from a store’s usual business practice.

Holiday returns are about 2-percent higher than the rest of the year. About 25 percent of retailers change return policies for the holiday season, nearly all of them enacting stricter rules.

Gift recipients should be aware of specific return policies, said Kristen Regine, a professor of marketing at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. Electronics, for instance, she said, “can be problematic.” A “restocking fee” might be charged to put merchandise back into inventory, or another fee might be imposed for an open box. Often, time limits determine when cash or store credit will be given.

Policies on returns vary, but in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, return policies must be clearly posted, either at the point of display, cash register or store entrance.

Policies on the need for a receipt vary widely, from no questions asked and no receipt necessary to store credit only without a receipt — or no credit at all if the store can’t find the item in its inventory.

Like regulations for returns, laws governing gift cards vary as well. Most cards are good for five years under federal law. Massachusetts has a seven-year limit. Rhode Island is far more generous to consumers, Regine said, because most cards or certificates never expire.

It is unlawful for any gift card or certificate to come with additional fees, redemption or expiration dates, according to Martha Crippen, director of the Consumer Protection Unit of Rhode Island’s Office of the Attorney General. Businesses are not required to pay taxes on the money the cards bring in until they are used. With between 6 percent and 9 percent of gift cards never redeemed, Regine said, they’re a source of non-taxable income for many companies, especially small businesses.

There are exceptions in Rhode Island law, primarily for cards or certificates donated to charities or for promotional programs. Time limits are allowed. It’s up to an owner’s discretion to honor them after that. Regine said she believes the vast majority do, either fully or partially, because it makes good business sense.

“A gift card is usually the floor, not the ceiling on what a customer spends, usually a bigger sale than the card’s face value,” she said.

Consumers should also know the differences between retail gift cards and the Visa and MasterCard bank cards that are also sold in convenience, drug and other stores. Additional fees are usually added to the bank cards and a card’s value can be depleted gradually over time, said Regine.

Consumers shipping items back to retailers need to know returns rules too, as well as be alert. At the start of the holiday buying season, the attorney general’s office issued shopping rules and safety tips, including not to leave arriving packages unattended on doorsteps. The same goes for outbound items.

“Consumers should be wary about packages going back, too,” said Amy Kempe, public information officer for Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin. “Unfortunately, they also can be stolen off the front stoop.”