Navigating retail returns

Courier collecting a parcel

“I Wanted Phish Tix, Not Fish Sticks!”


As hard as we try, sometimes we make the wrong choice when buying for others - or even when buying for ourselves.

When my I asked my nephew what he wanted for Christmas, he looked up at me from behind his stringy bangs and ever-present tablet and mumbled something about ‘fish’. I thought this was an odd gift request for a 16-year-old - frozen seafood - but he’d always been a slightly odd child and as a teenager, well, he was frankly beyond figuring out.

So when I gave him a big case of Captain Highliner for Christmas, I really thought I’d nailed it for him.  Turns out I may have misheard him…slightly and…well, let’s just say I’m buying a LOT of tartar sauce these days and I’ve now learned that ‘Phish’ is a rock band with a rather fervent following.

I guess the point is at some time or another we all have to deal with returning an item we’ve purchased – so it’s important to know the rules.  Consumers have a lot of options these days but it pays to be informed and that begins with asking questions of your retailers.

Rules for Returning Merchandise

The first rule of returning purchases is there are no rules! Literally. There is no single regulation, either Federal or Provincial that says a retailer must agree to take back your purchase and refund your money (except in the case of defective items). Every retailer, whether it’s a bricks and mortar or online store, will have a different policy regarding returns, so you need to check this before you complete your purchase. If you don’t see it posted prominently, ask. For online retailers, if you don’t see it immediately, check the FAQ or the Terms and Conditions section or search “Returns” on the website.

Most retailers want you to be happy and want you to come back, so they have very lenient return policies. But policies vary widely. Some sellers allow returns within a short period of time following the purchase and others allow up to 3 months. Some sellers will only provide store credit for returned items while others will only exchange an item for another item in the store. If you are purchasing an item on ‘sale’ or ‘clearance’, be especially cognizant of the store policy. Some retailers do not allow for exchange or refund on sale items.

There are some goods which cannot be returned due to hygiene issues. Pierced earrings, under garments and lip balm come to mind (thankfully!) And then there are the stores with the dreaded “All Sales Final” sign behind the cash desk. (This is often accompanied by a sign that says “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”).

Some retailers charge a ‘restocking’ fee for returned items. In doing so they are required to clearly disclose this at the point of purchase. This is particularly prevalent in the area of retail electronics such as computers, televisions and audio systems and for ‘special order’ items. This fee can be anywhere from 10%-25% of the purchase price of the item, so it is particularly important to make your choice carefully to avoid paying this fee in the event of a return. However, if you are returning an item do to a defect, retailers are not permitted to charge a restocking fee.

For online retailers you should know whether or not you are on the hook for postage of an item you may wish to return. This charge can sometimes be significant with Canadian postal rates, especially if it needs to be returned to an international location. So, it is up to you to know the policy of the specific retailer.

Points to Remember

In navigating these choppy waters here are some good pointers to remember:

  1. Know without a doubt what the retailer’s policy is BEFORE completing any purchase, either online or in a store. If it’s not in writing somewhere on your receipt, ask for it in writing.
  2. Always keep your receipts. It may not be necessary for the return of an item, but they are often required for the manufacturer to honour a warranty.
  3. Be aware of an “expiry” period for your opportunity to return an item and make a note of this to remind yourself.
  4. If you have been provided store credit in exchange for your returned goods, ensure you understand if this credit expires and if so, when.
  5. There should never be an issue returning an item that is defective or doesn’t operate as advertised.

Gift Receipts

If you are purchasing a gift for someone, always, ALWAYS request a gift receipt if it is available. A gift receipt provides proof of the item(s) purchased but discretely, does not specify a price. This works brilliantly when the gift is perfect and the recipient is over-the- moon happy with no desire to return it. However, if they do opt to return or exchange the item, simple math will allow them to know just what a cheapskate you really are, so beware. (But then, it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?)

Finally, if you feel you have been treated unfairly by a retailer, speak up (which is the same advice I gave my teenage nephew). Filing a complaint through Resolver is always a good choice and we make it easy and free to do so.

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