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The art of the return; Shoppers will be flocking to stores today to return gifts that don't fit or won't be used. These tips will make your time in the return line go a lot smoother

Ho ho ho, it's back to the stores we go.

After months of pounding the linoleum at malls this holiday season, Western New York shoppers will return to the stores in droves today -- taking back unwanted items that made their way into stockings and under trees.

In fact, retail returns are expected to hit historic levels this year. Liquidation.com, a company that buys returned merchandise from large retailers then auctions it off to other stores, told the Associated Press that return rates have more than doubled since the recession hit.

Retailers claim that processing and reselling so many returns costs billions of dollars, and are trying to find ways to curb as much of it as they can without irking customers.

Some retailers are actually making returns easier this year, offering free return shipping online or allowing shoppers to return items in stores without tags or receipts.

But about 13 percent of retailers are tightening their return policies, according to the National Retail Federation. And many more are making changes to their policies that complicate the returns process.

According to ConsumerWorld.org's annual return policy survey, here's what you can expect to face at some stores:

*Target has halved its return period on electronics to 45 days. Opened items can be denied a refund or exchange, even with a receipt. But on a positive note, it dropped its 15 percent restocking fee.

*Best Buy got rid of its restocking fees, too, but shortened its holiday return deadline by one week. This year, items bought from Nov. 13 to Dec. 14 can be returned through Jan. 24. Last year, the purchase window started on Nov. 1 and returns could be made until Jan. 31. Members of the store's Reward Zone will have a little more leeway with returns on some items.

*At Toys 'R Us, opened electronics and similar items may not be returnable.

*Holiday return periods are shorter at Sears for some items. You'll have just 30 days on computers, down from 60, and 60 days on fine jewelry, down from 90.

*Walmart and Target allow returns without a receipt, but only up to a certain amount. Like many other retailers, they track returns and will only allow so many per person in a given period. Walmart halved its return period on cameras to 15 days, but extended the holiday return period to include items purchased as early as Nov. 1.

*Amazon.com has 30 additional return policies for the holiday season, each one pertaining to a different product category.

*Returning "special occasion" dresses could be extra tricky, since some unscrupulous folks will wear an outfit once before returning it.

*Overstock.com has a 60 percent restocking fee for some items that have been used, opened or returned past the holiday deadline. Bigger televisions are not returnable.

To make returns go more smoothly, follow this cheat sheet:

*Keep items in their original packaging with tags attached.

*Do your returning as quickly as possible. Most stores have a strict time frame for accepting returns, and who knows when the item was actually bought?

*Bring your gift receipt if you have one or, depending on how comfortable you are with the gift giver, ask for the original receipt.

If you're returning an item with a gift receipt, don't be surprised if you're given store credit rather than cash back. Many stores have updated their return policies with this rule in place.

*Bring your driver's license, since most chains now require identification when you make a return.

*Many stores share a database that tracks people who return items. Some retailers refuse to accept returns made by people who have returned items without a receipt more than three times in one year.

*In New York, retailers are required to clearly post their return policies. If they don't, consumers are eligible for a refund for up to 30 days from purchase with a receipt -- no matter what its policy states.

Stores are also required to clearly post advance warning of any return fees and the exact dollar or percentage amount of restocking fees associated with particular items.

*Bring a copy of the store's return policy with you to avoid confusion. The person taking your return might be unfamiliar or misinformed about the store's rules.

*Be nice. If you're demanding, rude or dismissive, a clerk may be much less inclined to help your cause.

email: schristmann@buffnews.com

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