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It's the day after Christmas, the end of the run, and the store clerks are harried with many refunds.

Dec. 26th is the second busiest day of the year at retail stores, second only to the Friday after Thanksgiving, according to Louis L. Berger Jr., chairman of L.L. Berger Inc. Not every local retailer agrees that it's the second busiest day, but there is a consensus that it ranks near the top, as far as crowds go.

It's the day that thousands of shoppers bring back the gifts they have received to get something in a different size, a different color or, especially in a slow economy, the money spent on the gift.

One national marketing survey estimates that 43 percent of Christmas gifts were returned last year. Locally, a random sampling of stores indicates a return rate of from 10 to 35 percent, with the average about 25 percent.

Berger said that returns usually run between 15 and 20 percent throughout the year. Right after Christmas they jump to 35 percent.

The lowest estimate on the percentage of returns was made by Roger Holzheimer, manager of Bonwit Teller in the Walden Galleria, who guessed that from 8 to 10 percent of gifts from that upscale store are returned. "I think there is something very special about receiving something from Bonwit Teller, which lessens our exchange rate," he said.

Most major stores will refund the money paid for the gift or exchange it for something of similar value, as long as the customer has a receipt. But often people don't have a receipt. That's where policies differ among stores, especially when an item may have been on sale right before Christmas.

Some retailers, such as Sears Roebuck, will allow only the sales price of the gift. Others will take the customer's word.

"We pretty much allow what the customer says was paid for the gift," said Laurie Latona, manager of The Limited at the Eastern Hills Mall. "Our prices don't change very much."

But stores where sales are common fear that a policy of allowing customers to receive the usual higher price of a product without a sales receipt in making an exchange is an invitation to widespread, and costly, cheating.

"We refund money at the current selling price of an item," said J. Keith Alford, president of Adam, Meldrum & Anderson. "We change prices so often that we can't tell, without a receipt, what the original price was."

Alford estimated that from 20 to 25 percent of goods bought as gifts are returned.

Retailers with especially liberal policies on exchanges don't want to have them publicized for fear that large numbers of customers might take unfair advantage of the store.

"For 85 years our policy has been to keep customers happy," said Berger. "We know the price of our merchandise. We don't have any problems with customers."

It's "good advertising to have an extremely liberal return policy," says Joseph B. Siegel, vice president of merchandising for the National Retail Federation. "That's how department stores grew."

The day after Christmas also is a major selling day, says Ron Schmidt, a sales manager at the Sears Roebuck store at Eastern Hills Mall. People come to stores with money they have received as Christmas presents or with gift certificates. "Most people are looking for sales and they get a greater value after Christmas with a gift certificate than they would before," he said.

It's also a bigger day here for retail merchants than in most other areas of the country because of the proximity to Canada where Dec. 26 is Boxing Day, a national holiday. With cheaper U.S. prices and the Canadian dollar only 14 cents lower than the U.S. dollar, thousands of Canadians are expected to come to stores on this side of the border.

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