Sondra Paulson—Getty Images
By Martha C. White
December 16, 2015

Stores typically relax their return policies during the holidays, by extending the period within which items can be returned, for instance. But the details vary by retailer — and some throw in annoying stipulations and restrictions.

Fortunately for shoppers (and gift recipients) this year, most stores are sticking with what they did last year, according to a new ConsumerWorld.org study. In its annual survey of the holiday return policies of major retailers, ConsumerWorld found that the most common tweaks to return policies are consumer-friendly ones.The extended window for holiday returns now stretches into late January at some stores, although Sears bucked the trend by switching its category-specific returns — which in the past gave customers up to 90 days to make a return — to a flat 30-day return period.

Stores have upped the ante on free shipping for returns as well. This year, about half the stores in the survey offer free shipping on returns, including Macy’s, Target, Saks, Gap, Bloomingdale’s and Old Navy, while Amazon and PayPal offer free return shipping in more limited cases.

(For another take, here’s a listing of the 10 stores with the best holiday return policies — and the five with the worst.)

On the down side, ConsumerWorld reports that more stores are adding special rules for returning certain categories of products, like electronics. “Computers, game consoles, and opened goods may be subject to limited return rights, restocking fees, or shorter return periods,” the site warns.

ConsumerWorld flagged some of the more idiosyncratic policies, noting that some stores, such as Target and Best Buy, have more generous return policies for their loyalty club members, and clothing stores including Express and Bloomingdales require tags to still be on the garments to prevent “wardrobing” (the icky practice of wearing something, then returning it).

While most stores are pretty clear about their holiday return policies, ConsumerWorld pointed out that it can be a lengthy process; collectively, stores’ policies comprise some 26,000 words. And some are more transparent than others; the site highlighted Marshall’s and TJ Maxx for prominent in-store signs that spell out the details of their policies (shoppers have until January 23 to return purchases made between October 18 and Christmas Eve), and slammed Toys “R” Us for what it dubbed a “secret policy” that’s hard to track down. If you’re curious, regarding Toys “R” Us the site said, “Most items bought from September 1 onward can be returned until January 23, except November 1 onward for video game hardware, cameras, music players, etc. Netbooks, eReaders, etc. bought November 1 onward can be returned until January 9.”

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