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DIMINISHING RETURNS <br> TARGET, HOME DEPOT TIGHTEN RETURN POLICIES

Some of the nation's largest retailers are tightening their return policies -- making it more important than ever to keep your receipt.

Starting Nov. 1, Target will not accept any returns without a receipt dated within 90 days. Right now, the discount retailer gives store credit for items brought back without a receipt. And Home Depot is now giving store credit, not cash, for items without a receipt.

"One percent of the public is ruining it for everyone. They are taking advantage of the policy in every way they can," said John Simley, Home Depot spokesman. "There were enough cheats that were taking advantage of us that we decided we did not want to have to pass those costs onto our customers."

Two suburban Home Depot stores, which the company declined to identify, had the most fraudulent returns in the Buffalo Niagara area, Simley said.

"This comes in response to professional thieves, who may steal merchandise and then return it, without a receipt of course, to the store for a refund," said Edie Clark, director of media relations for the International Mass Retail Association, the trade association that represents such sellers as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target. "Doing that and receiving full retail price for the stolen item is obviously more profitable for the thief than selling it to a fence at a substantial discount."

Target said that fraud was not the main reason for changing its return policy. With new computer technology, Target may be able to verify a purchase even if the customer loses the receipt by running their credit card, debit card, check information or product serial number through its computers, said Kristin Jahnke, Target spokeswoman. However, if a customer paid with cash and loses the receipt, they're out of luck.

Another way Target is helping its customers is by automatically printing a gift receipt for any purchase that contains at least one item over $10.

"Target can reprint as many gift receipts as you request any time within 90 days of the purchase," said David Caspers, the chain's team leader for Western New York.

Target is also making two other important changes to its return policy that goes into effect Nov. 1. The first is charging a fee equal to 15 percent of the sale price to return some electronic merchandise such as camcorders, digital cameras, and portable DVD players -- even with a receipt.

A Target spokeswoman said the company made the change so its policy is similar to those of specialty electronic retailers.

"It's a way to try to mitigate against people renting them for free," said Jim Babb, a spokesman for Circuit City, which charges a 15 percent restocking fee on computers and computer-related accessories.

The second change at Target is that customers can receive only the current price of any seasonal merchandise returned -- even with a receipt. For example, if a customer were to buy a Thanksgiving decoration that cost $10 and then returned it after it went on sale for $5, they would get only a $5 refund.

Debbie Knight of Kenmore said she will be more cautious about buying seasonal items because she may not get a full refund.

"I'll still shop here, but the changes are an inconvenience," she said on her way into the Target on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. "It's so easy to lose receipts and I don't do a lot of shopping with credit cards."

Target's return policy is stricter than some of its competitors, such as Wal-Mart and Kmart. Both Kmart and Wal-Mart will accept returns without a receipt and give store credit. And neither retailer charges any restocking fees on electronic items. Wal-Mart and Kmart also give customers a full refund on seasonal items as long as they have their receipt -- the norm in the retail business.

However, the changes made by the Home Depot bring it in line with other major retailers, the majority of which do not give cash refunds without receipts.

"I don't blame them," said Ann Colley of Buffalo on a recent shopping trip to the Home Depot on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. "An awful lot of people take advantage of goodwill."

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com

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