Staring at some unwanted, wrong-sized or just plain what-were-they-thinking holiday gifts? Even if it's just a pair of mittens or a blender you know you'll never use, it's probably not too late to exchange or return it. But don't procrastinate.
Consumer experts say more stores are "slicing and dicing" their return policies, which means you may have more weeks to return a pair of PJs but fewer days left to exchange that new computer or video game.
And in some cases, retailers will not issue any refunds, even with a receipt, on certain electronics and big-ticket items, like large-screen TVs.
"People don't realize that some retailers have changed their policies," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a Boston-based consumer site that produces an annual survey of return policies by 12 major retailers. "There's been a general tightening of return policies over the years ... and a trend toward categorizing," offering different deadlines for returning different types of merchandise.
He said three chains -- Best Buy, Sears and Toys R Us -- have shortened their holiday return windows this year, meaning you have two weeks to a month less time to return that Juice-O-Matic or electronic gizmo. For Best Buy, the return cutoff was Jan. 15 for items purchased in November; for Toys R Us, it's Jan. 25 for general merchandise, but was only until Jan. 9 for certain electronics. (For a chart of some retailers' policies, go to ConsumerWorld.org.)
Overall, 28 percent of retailers changed their holiday return policies this year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
Some of the changes are intended to thwart fraudulent returns, which the federation estimates was an $8.76 billion headache for retailers in 2013.
To make your gift returns easier this season, here are a few rules of the road:
Bring the receipt: "Try to bring some proof of purchase. Tags on an item aren't enough," Dworsky said. If you have a gift receipt, you'll likely get store credit or the ability to exchange or return it. Without a receipt, you'll be lucky to get the lowest price it recently sold for, not necessarily what the giver paid for it.
Know the policy: Before you show up at the customer counter, call, go online or read your paper receipt to check the store's return policy. "They've gotten so long and more complicated. No wonder consumers are confused," said Dworsky, who said this year's survey of return policies for 12 major retailers was about 11 pages longer.
Don't open it: If you've received pricey electronics, computers, software, cameras, etc., don't slice open the packaging if you're planning to return it. Some stores, like Best Buy or Fry's, can be picky if you've opened the package.
Online returns: Some stores will waive shipping fees when you're returning something bought online, by providing customers with a prepaid shipping label. Also, check and see if you can return an online purchase to a brick-and-mortar store, rather than pay shipping fees to mail it back to the warehouse. Macy's, Target and REI honor that policy.