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Stores Happily Brace for Refund Season

December 26, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Dear, sweet Aunt Tish--warm, giving and with a sense of color that finds her covering her heart with her hand and lip-syncing the "National Anthem" every time she passes a pennant-festooned Jack in the Box.

So, never mind that her Christmas sport-shirt present to you looks like a full-color rendering of a galaxy in eruption. It's the thought that counts, after all.

But, on any Dec. 26, there is the reality of it to be faced: What tribute is it to Aunt Tish's thoughtfulness to consign the gift shirt to an untouched life on a remote closet shelf?

This is why, for the next week, you will venture into any Southern California shopping mall at your own peril. The refund/exchange stampede should crest this weekend but will predictably run well through New Year's Day and beyond.

Predictably too, consumers--despite a tidal wave of media attention devoted to the matter--will continue to be puzzled about their God-given right to a refund or exchange, and about individual store policies covering such issues as the handling of gifts purchased at a pre-Christmas price but returned for refund or exchange after the identical item has been slashed to half that for after-Christmas clearance. On which price is the refund or exchange based?

Queries on the retail refund/exchange subject continue to rank among the top three complaints received by both the state Department of Consumer Affairs and the local Better Business Bureau. And, in many cases, smaller retailers tend to be almost as confused about it as consumers are.

No Legal Obligation

And so it bears repeating: No store, anywhere, is under the slightest legal obligation to take a single item back for refund or exchange, whether there is a posted policy to that effect in the store or not. (Although, to avoid prolonged hassles, most stores with such a no-refund, no-exchange policy do post it prominently.)

About a week before Christmas this year, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau said complaints and queries on refunds and exchanges were "running pretty slow but that's typical. It isn't until after Christmas, naturally, that we start getting 'the store wouldn't take it back' complaints and the other big one--about goods that didn't show up that were sold over the telephone or by direct mail with 'delivery by Christmas guaranteed.' "

While the no-refund, no-exchange policy does, indeed, rule supreme (not only at Christmas but year-round), its implementation is actually rather rare, according to Charles Zahka, the Broadway's vice president for consumer affairs, because "it's a matter of good will regardless of the size of the store. However, it's a good argument for sticking to established stores."

With sidewalk and parking lot vendors, of course, it may be significant that any "Refunds Cheerfully Given" signs are normally posted on the tailgate of a pickup truck that already has its motor running.

There is, the business bureau points out, one exception to the no-refund, no-exchange rule: when the consumer can prove that there was misrepresentation or fraud involved in the sale. And the store can also get into an awkward legal hassle if it does post its refund/exchange policy but then reneges on it.

But while most reputable stores will exchange merchandise with varying degrees of cheerfulness, cash refunds are extended much more cautiously. Pre-Christmas "inventory shrinkage"--as employee theft and shoplifting are euphemistically called--is a crushing burden for all retailers, and it's particularly rankling for them to discover, in retrospect, that they've been buying back their own stolen goods.

All of which makes proof of purchase--the sales receipt--a virtual "must." Although a few prestige stores will sometimes waive this rule (taking the perhaps chancy position that the ordinary, run-of-the-mill shoplifter rarely goes to the additional trouble of stealing not only the merchandise itself but also one of the store's matching, and distinctive, boxes, wrapping paper and shopping bag as well), it's infinitely safer to have the receipt in hand. The old excuse that the bill of sale accidentally ended up on the bottom of the parakeet's cage rarely cuts it anymore.

Prices Reduced

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