Being polite to the salesperson could pay off when attempting to return… (Justin Lane / EPA )
It's the day after Christmas, and you're staring down a small mound of gifts you'd never — not in a million years — purchase for yourself. How to flip that reindeer sweater into a chic cashmere scarf without getting into a tangle with a salesperson? We asked Trina Gupta, founder of Los Angeles-based personal shopping firm Petite Style Studio, to give us her tips on how to return or exchange unwanted merchandise with little to no fuss.
Delay and expect to pay
"Time is the biggest factor when returning something," Gupta said, "because the stores want to be able to resell the product, and the longer you wait, the less relevant that product becomes." And the smaller the store, the smaller the return and exchange window typically is. "Boutique return policies generally last from seven to 15 days," Gupta said. "And 90 days is the limit for almost any store. Beyond that, you're going to have a tough time."
If you're receipt-less, know the store's policies
Depending on the shop, you may or may not be able to return an item without a receipt. Nordstrom and mono-brand chain stores such as Gap and Restoration Hardware are famously return-friendly — even if you're without a receipt — if the item is still tagged and looking fresh, Gupta said. But don't expect cash back for that receipt-less frock that looks like it's seen a few late nights.
If you've worn it, say it doesn't fit
Even if you're not the unscrupulous type who buys things to wear once, then returns them, there is the rare occasion where you don't discover that an item — say, a pair of shoes or a body-conscious dress — doesn't quite fit until you've road-tested it in the real world. And while shopping wisdom posits that you can't return shoes worn outside of your living room, Gupta insists a case for returns can be made on the "ill fit" issue. For example, "you can explain that there's pain when you wear shoes," she said. "Online shoe retailers like Endless and Zappos will absolutely take them back, as long as they don't look like they've been worn more than a few times."
Keep it together
For no-hassle returning, keep all tags on and packaging in place — or at least contained. If those sunglasses came with a freebie case, make sure the case is present and accounted for when you make the return, Gupta said. "Also make sure things are scratch-free," she said. "Run a dry cloth over bags, shoe bottoms and glasses to make sure they look brand new if you have to. And if you're opening a present from someone who always buys you things you return, open it gingerly."
When asking someone to bend the rules, be polite. It's possible to return that Santa Claus serving tray without a receipt or that sweater with the unraveling hem — even if it goes against store policy. But it probably won't happen without flashing a warm smile at the salesperson, Gupta said. And even if you've never shopped in the store before, "explain that you're a loyal customer. They're more likely to bend the rules for someone who shops with them a lot."
Small indie boutiques generally "don't have the overhead to accept things back weeks later that they can no longer sell," Gupta said. So don't try to force a money-back return on a struggling retailer if the case falls outside their policies. Suggest an exchange and nab something special — and perhaps a bit frivolous — for yourself. It's Christmas, after all.