Check return policies before you buy

HOUSTON It's not just the prices, it's the return policy. Even early shoppers need to know about them because of time limitations.

With the holiday shopping season in high gear, the last thing you're probably thinking about is returning that perfect gift you've just bought. But you should. Last year, a whopping $219 billion worth of products were returned. Consumer Reports ShopSmart says in order not to get burned later, put return policies on your radar now.

Even before you buy, you should look for a store with a good return policy. Target is among the better stores on ShopSmart magazine's list. But plenty of others have return policies that aren't so great.

"Policies you want to avoid: ones that won't give you a full refund or that only give you a small window of time to return something," said Jody Rohlena of Consumer Reports ShopSmart.

The Home Depot allows you to return many items within 90 days, but the store reserves the right to limit or refuse to accept the return of merchandise at any time and for any reason.

"Another restrictive policy: Office Depot. You only have 14 days to return furniture and electronics," said Rohlena.

If you've bought an electronics item at an Office Depot and opened it, even something as basic as a phone, the company "will offer an exchange only" -- not a refund or store credit. In fact, when it comes to electronics you should be careful to check the return policy wherever you shop.

"Very often you cannot return a laptop. But TVs and camcorders may not be returnable either," Rohlena said.

Some return costs that can add up: restocking fees can be up to 25% of the cost of the item. Don't forget return postage. Also check whether you'll get a store credit only with a no cash refund. And to be sure someone gets the amount you paid for that perfect gift, and not the post-holiday sale price, remember to include a gift receipt in your package

A few of the best stores for returns according to Consumer Reports are Kohl's, Nordstrom and Kmart.

Some stores relax the return policies around the holidays, so be sure to check before you buy.

As for buying online, is allowing returns until the end of January if you purchased something in November or December. But if you are buying online, be sure to check out the return terms first. It can save you trouble later.

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