Q: I tried returning an item I had bought at one store, because I found it in the color I really wanted at another store, but found out that I couldn't return it. Are not all stores required to offer a refund policy?
A: In actuality, refund and exchange policies are not required by law. In fact, retailers offer refund policies as a voluntary practice. There are no laws that require merchants to offer refunds, exchanges or credit on merchandise they sell, although laws do protect consumers from misrepresented or defective products.
Do not assume you can get your money back just by taking the unwanted item into the store and asking for it. Return policies should be specifically stated by the store, but it is up to the consumer to know what those policies are and to realize they can change from store to store.
A policy is often printed in plain sight like on a sales receipt or posted at the Point of Sale (POS). If you do not see the policy, ask up front. Understand the policy of the store before you pay for the item. Keep your receipt and any packaging the item came in.
Different policies mean different things. Ask up front and do your part when returning a purchase in order to have a successful return experience.
* An Exchange - When the store's policy states that you may exchange your purchase, it means the item may be returned to the store and another similar item taken in its place. This does not apply to "all sales final" policies or sale items unless stated.
* A Return for Credit - means the store will provide the customer with a store credit for the value of the purchased item. You may then apply that amount to the purchase of any other item in the same store. You may use the credit the day you return the item or at a later date. Ask if the credit has an expiration date.
* A Refund Policy - states that the item can be returned for your money back, and most of the time has stipulations such as receipt required, a time limit to get the refund or that items must be new and in original packaging. A refund is voluntary on the store's part and is not required by law.
* Restocking Fee - A restocking fee is a fee assessed for the time the item was out of the store and unable to be sold to someone else. This is usually applied to specialty items or hard to find items and is one of the most complained about return policies. Inquire if there is a restocking fee before making your purchase, if you're not willing to pay it and there is a chance the item will be returned you may want to consider buying something else.
Retailers may adopt some, none, or all of the mentioned return policies. Health regulations prohibit the return of certain merchandise such as hats, bathing suits, or other intimate apparel.
Product warranties are often confused with store return policies. Products often come with stated or implied warranties from their manufacturer. Federal law requires that warranties be available for you to read before you buy a product, even when you're shopping by catalog or online. Understand the warranty before purchasing the item and read it before returning a defective product to the retailer.
Some merchants will return the product for you as a customer service; however you may have to return the item directly to the manufacturer or a service center.
Good advice is to keep all receipts and packaging until you are sure the purchase will not be returned. Simply knowing a store's refund and exchange policies before making a purchase can save lots of frustration and help you avoid standing in long lines after the holidays.
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.