How to Return and Exchange Your Unwanted Holiday Gifts

Casey Chin

So you've gone through your holiday gifts, and there are some you'd like to return. They don’t fit. They don’t suit your taste. You just read a book extolling the virtues of minimalism and want to give that lifestyle a swing.

Whatever your logic, you’re not alone. In 2017, the National Retail Foundation estimated that around $351 billion worth of merchandise was returned, accounting for about 10 percent of total sales. Around the holiday season, an estimated two-thirds of consumers make a return.

“Consumers are really used to being able to return their goods,” says Larisa Summers, senior VP Marketing and E-Commerce at Optoro, a platform that helps retailers like Target and Staples recoup the costs of returned goods. “I think a lot of consumers are not aware of how complicated that is for retailers.”

While most shoppers assume that returned goods are restocked on the shelf where they came from, Summers says this only happens about half of the time. Otherwise, goods are sold to other retailers—or worse, thrown out. Optoro estimates that 5 billion pounds of returned items end up in a landfill every year.

So if you're going to return holiday gifts, do it in a smart and sustainable way. The gift cards you'll get are nice, but being smart about returns yields the best gift of all: a less cluttered home and planet.

The Basics

First things first: You have more time than you think. While “30 days after the time of purchase” is the normal year-round policy, most retailers adjust their return-by date this time of year to accommodate post-holiday returns.

Make sure to pack your item with all tags and accessories, and original packaging as much as possible. Unless you’re exchanging a defective product, make sure that your return is in good condition. Goods returned in their original packaging and condition are much easier to resell, Summers says. Without the original packaging, there’s a higher chance that the items will end up getting thrown out.

Got a gift receipt? Generally, having one makes it easier and more likely that you’ll get cash or store credit for your return. Some stores will work with you to gather order information if you’ve lost your receipt. At other retailers, you’ll get zilch. Some stores require you to show them ID, so be sure to bring that along, too.

Summers encourages consumers to share why they’re returning a product. Retailers take this kind of feedback seriously, since it helps them to decrease returns in future years.

Finally, know individual stores’ policies. Some stores will adjust their policy for opened or unopened products; others will only take returns and exchanges in stores. We’ve rounded up some of the most popular retailers’ policies below, but it’s a good idea to have a firm understanding of policies specific to the item you’re trying to return before you head back out into the crowds at the mall.

Amazon’s Return Policy

Odds are, you received at least one gift from the online retail giant. will honor returns and exchanges for items shipped between November 1 and December 31 this year, so long as you return them by January 31, 2019. Pack your item and log in to your Amazon account to start a gift return . You’ll need to enter the “Order ID” from the packing slip. Print and affix the provided return label to your package. When your item is received, you’ll receive a refund in the form of an Amazon gift card.

All of this applies for products from If the item was purchased from a third-party seller, you (or the person who gave you the gift in the first place) would need to facilitate the return with the seller.

Tech Retailers: Apple, Best Buy, Walmart, Target

Apple will only accept returns from items that have been purchased at the Apple Store or from Apple’s website. If you received a new Apple product between November 14 and December 25, you have through January 8, 2019 to return or exchange it. For gifts, refunds are issued in the form of an Apple Gift Card. Exchanges can only be done in the Apple Store.

Log in to Your Account , select “Return a Gift,” and follow the instructions on the page. If you’re returning an iPhone or iPad, make sure to follow up with your wireless carrier to make sure that the wireless service has been cancelled.

Best Buy will accept most products that were bought between October 28 and December 28, 2018, so long as you return it by January 12, 2019. Process your returns in store, or by mail with a prepaid return label, and expect to receive your refund via store credit. Beware: For gifts returned by mail, Best Buy will send an email notification to the gift giver.

Walmart will accept returns and exchanges on items that were placed between October 28 and December 25, 2018. For items with a 15 or 30 day return window, the clock doesn’t start until December 26. For example, cameras and computers need to be returned within 15 days of December 26, so you have until January 10, 2019 to take care of it.There’s no extended timeframe for items with 90 day return windows.

Gifts should be returned in stores. Refunds are issued by gift card or cash back, and make sure to bring the receipt to ensure you’ll get a speedy refund. If you don’t have a receipt, bring your ID, as well as your order number or the sender’s email address, and try to process the return with a Walmart employee.

Target will take back new and unopened items if they’re returned within 90 days of purchase. They’ll also accept returns and exchanges on “electronics and entertainment items” purchased between November 1 and December 25; you have up to 30 days from December 26 to return these to a Target store or by mail.

Bring the gift receipt or packing slip. If the purchase was made on a non-Target credit card, you’ll get a refund reloaded to the original card. Alternatively, you can avoid messy confrontations and just accept a refund by gift card.

Outdoor Retailers: REI, Patagonia, The North Face

REI accepts most returns and exchanges up to a year after purchase, with the exception of outdoor electronics. Returns can be made by mail or in store; exchanges need to be processed in store. If you request a “gift recipient refund,” then your refund will be issued in the form of a mailed check. If you don’t have your receipt, don’t sweat it—REI can help identify proof of purchase if you can fill out a note with more details about the purchase. You can find that proof of purchase form and the gift recipient refund form here .

Patagonia accepts gift returns in store and by mail, for store credit. Make sure that the item is new, with tags still attached, then fill out the gift return form and follow the instructions from the page. If you don’t have the order number, fill out a return form and bring it, along with the item, to a Patagonia store.

The North Face allows returns via mail, for store credit. Pack your item, sign in, fill out the gift return form , and attach the packing slip and prepaid return label to your box.

What if I can’t return it?

Maybe you dinged up the e-reader, or you lost the receipt in a black hole. If your item is past the point of no return, there are still plenty of ways to sustainably repurpose or resell unwanted gifts.

Sites like eBay and deCluttr can help you resell your used goods. If you’re selling a phone, these sites will pay you the most money for it. If you can't return or resell, consider donating. Instead of trashing your unloved items, haul them to your local Goodwill .

And next year, just ask for a gift card.

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