Knowing you can return an item that doesn’t meet your expectations may be enough to spur you to make a purchase. That can be especially true for online orders which are made sight unseen.
In fact, 60% of shoppers have returned an item or received a refund for a product purchased online within the past 18 months. That’s according to an August 2021 survey of 1,500 online shoppers by 1WorldSync, a product content platform. Product photography that did not match the shipped item was cited as a problem by 58% of those surveyed, and 42% said product descriptions were misleading or inaccurate.
Unfortunately, not all return policies are created equal. “The data gathered from our website show that returns and refunds are among the most frequent issues that bring frustration to customers,” says Michael Podolsky, CEO and co-founder of PissedConsumer.com, a review platform. Complaints include unclear return policies, fees for returns and other obstacles.
All that means it’s important to pay attention to a store’s return policy, particularly if you think there is a chance you will send an item back. The following are some stores that are notable for being generous — or stingy — about returns.
Stores With Best Return Policies
The best return policies are those that have a long window for refunds, don’t necessarily require a receipt and provide multiple options for returning online purchases.
“If you are shopping online, find out who pays for the shipping when an item is returned,” advises Jay Klauminzer, CEO of Raise, a platform for discounted gift cards. “In some cases, you can save on shipping fees by returning an online purchase to a local store.”
These six retailers are known for having best-in-class return policies:
— L.L. Bean
— M.S. Rau
The popular warehouse club Costco is known for its risk-free 100% satisfaction guarantee. The retailer will refund your purchase price at any time if you are unhappy with an item. Since membership is required to shop Costco’s warehouse deals, there is no need to keep receipts since purchase details can be looked up with your membership card. If you buy something on Costco.com, returns can be made in-store or through the mail.
There are a few exceptions to Costco’s standard return policy. Electronics must be returned within 90 days, and items with a limited lifespan, such as tires or batteries, may have product-specific warranties. Alcohol and cigarettes can’t be returned where prohibited by law, and there are special return procedures for diamonds that are 1 carat or larger.
Nordstrom not only stands out for a great return policy, but also its excellent customer service, says Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, a retail management consulting firm. “Many Nordstrom stores now have a customer service bar where customers can go directly to make returns and not have to wait in checkout lines,” he explains.
The store doesn’t have any published limitations on returns and instead handles them on a case-by-case basis. Returns can be made at curbside, in-store or through the mail, although there may be some restrictions on what can be accepted curbside. Nordstrom also operates Nordstrom Local service hubs to facilitate convenient pickups and returns.
“Nordstrom’s long-time focus on customer service comes through in the retailer’s approach to returns and simplifying the experience for customers which, in turn, builds loyalty,” Castelán says.
At one time, L.L. Bean had almost no limits on returns — taking back any product at any time. However, all good things must come to an end, and now the company stipulates returns must be made within one year of purchase. That is still very generous compared to the 90 days or less than is standard at many other retailers.
The store requires proof of purchase, but if you don’t have a receipt, L.L. Bean may be able to look up the sales record in its system. If an item is defective or purchased prior to Feb. 9, 2018, you may be able to receive a refund even after one year. Returns can be made in-store or through the mail, but there may be a $6.50 charge to ship an item back.
Zappos is a top website for shoe purchases, and part of what makes the company so popular is its return policy. Items can be returned for a full refund within 365 days of purchase. Zappos will also pay for the return shipping and provide a credit to your original payment method.
Shoes must be unworn and be returned with their original packaging and tags, including the security tag if one was attached. For items that are defective, damaged or incorrect, customers should reach out to customer service.
Among big-box retailers, Target has a more generous return policy than what may be found elsewhere. Most unopened items can be returned within 90 days for a refund or exchange. The return policy for Target-owned brands such as Cat & Jack and Boots & Barkley is even better, and these items can be returned within a year so long as you have a receipt. However, mobile phones must be returned within 14 days, other Apple products within 15 days and electronics and entertainment items within 30 days. There may be a restocking fee for mobile phones.
If you don’t have a receipt, the store may be able to look up proof of your purchase electronically, or your return may be accepted for a merchandise return card for store credit. Regardless of the brand, online purchases can be returned in stores.
Not everyone has a budget that will allow for the purchase of high-end antiques, but those who do may want to order from M.S. Rau. The company offers what it says is the strongest antiques guarantee in the world.
“Client satisfaction and the exquisite quality of our antiques, jewelry, and fine art have been some of the keys to M.S. Rau’s success for nearly 110 years,” says Lori Paige, chief marketing officer for M.S. Rau. “We stand behind each and every piece and have developed strong client relationships as a result.”
Antiques can be returned at any time so long as they are in the same condition as when purchased. The return value appreciates 5% each year for up to five years, for a maximum return value of 125%. Returns receive store credit and exclude shipping costs.
[Read: Best Discount Shopping Apps.]
Stores With Worst Return Policies
Meanwhile, the following retailers are known for having more restrictive return policies. However, these may be subject to change around the holidays.
“Know that many retailers have changed their policies for the holiday season and the COVID-19 pandemic, so you may have more time than you think to make your returns or exchanges,” Klauminzer says.
— Barnes and Noble
— Best Buy
— Office Depot/OfficeMax
— Resale sites
Apple lands on the list of stores with the worst refund policy thanks to its short return window. The company gives you a mere 14 calendar days to return your purchase, and returned items must be repackaged with all cords, adapters and documentation. Open software that has been downloaded, gift cards and print products are among the items not eligible for a refund.
Plus, only items bought directly from Apple can be returned to the company. If you buy from another retailer, your return is subject to that store’s return policy and procedures.
Barnes and Noble
The bookseller Barnes and Noble provides 30 days for most returns, which isn’t bad, but there are drawbacks. Online purchases can be returned in stores, but if you want to send an item back through the mail, you’ll pay the return shipping. Plus, items must be unused, which means that if you pull the shrink wrap off a movie, music or other item, you can’t get a refund.
If you want to return a Nook device, the return window shrinks to 14 days. And if you took advantage of a BOGO sale for any purchase, you can only get an exchange, not a refund. If you received an item as a gift, you have 60 days to make a refund for store credit or a Barnes & Noble gift card — assuming you have a gift receipt.
The good news is that you can return Best Buy purchases in store or through the mail, and the store will pay the shipping cost. The bad news is that the standard return window for most products is 15 days. If you’re a My Best Buy Elite member, you get 30 days, and My Best Buy Elite Plus members have 45 days to make a return. However, everyone only has 14 days to bring back cellphones and related devices and 15 days to return major appliances.
Items must be in like-new condition, and there are restrictions on the return of some products, such as opened entertainment items or those without proof of purchase. A restocking fee may apply to cellphones, cellular tablets and wearables, drones, DSLR cameras and other items.
If you buy office supplies from Office Depot or OfficeMax, the return window is a healthy 90 days. But you only get 30 days to bring back ink and toner and 14 days for technology, electronics, furniture and unopened software and entertainment items. Cleaning and breakroom supplies, as well as gift cards, are nonreturnable.
On the bright side, Office Depot products can be returned at any time, with the exception of ink and toner. Regardless of what you’re returning, you’ll need an original receipt to get a refund. Otherwise, without a receipt, you may get a return card worth the item’s lowest retail price from the proceeding 90 days.
While the online superstore makes it relatively easy to initiate a return, Amazon is one of the top sites for complaints left on PissedConsumer.com. The website has logged approximately 1,400 complaints about Amazon’s return process, and only two dozen report they were able to resolve their issues.
That may be partly because the volume of sales completed on Amazon, but it could also reflect the complex return policies of the site. In theory, items can be returned within 30 days of purchase, but there is a long list of exceptions, and many product categories have their own rules. Plus, there are numerous third-party sellers on Amazon and each may have their own return policy, further adding to the confusion.
Buyer beware on sites which facilitate sales through private sellers. Websites like eBay and Poshmark make it easy for buyers and sellers to connect, but they can also make refunds difficult. Most sites offer some protection for items that arrive damaged or defective, but if you decide you simply don’t like something, it may be hard to get your money back.
Podolsky says eBay is at the top of the PissedConsumer.com complaint list, with 1,618 complaints about returns out of 10,333 reviews. Only eight of those return complaints were ever reported as resolved. The best advice for anyone planning to buy from an auction or resale site is to read the fine print and be sure you definitely want the item before clicking the buy button.
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Update 10/04/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.