How to return unwanted items this Christmas

Whether it’s online or on the high street, it pays to know your rights to get your money back

Read the returns policy before you buy

Whether you are shopping online or in person, check the retailer’s returns policy before you part with your cash. Many high street shops offer at least a 28-day period in which you can return unused items and get a full refund or exchange – and over Christmas these are often extended to allow people to return unwanted gifts. At John Lewis, for example, the standard returns period is 35 days but gifts bought between 1 October 2021 and 24 December 2021 can be returned until 28 January 2022. Argos usually has a 30-day returns window but anything bought between 17 October and Christmas Day can be taken back until 24 January.

Check how the returns can be made

Some retailers let you return items bought online or in a shop to any of their branches but some have restrictions. Uniqlo, for example, will not let you return items bought online to a shop for a refund but will let you do so for an exchange. If you shop in its stores you can only get a refund if you take something back to the place where you bought it, otherwise you can only exchange it.

Online returns were typically free, and made easy with the inclusion of a label with your order, but these days you may have to download the label and pay for postage. This could be a fixed fee charged by the retailer and retained from your refund, or you could be responsible for arranging the return and covering the cost. Al Gerrie, the chief executive of ZigZag, a company that handles returns for retailers, says this could be a growing trend as “retailers have been subsidising the true cost of returns for a long time now”. ZigZag’s figures show that pre-Christmas returns are up 69% on last year.

Know your rights

For online shopping a 14-day cooling-off period is enshrined in law – during that time you can change your mind and reclaim all of your cash – although some retailers offer longer. There are some caveats: the goods cannot be perishable or have been customised. But the law is helpful if you suddenly realise that a gift you have ordered is not going to arrive on time and want to make a last-minute dash to the shops instead. You need to tell the retailer that you want to cancel within the 14-day period – most will have a cancellation or returns form to fill in. Then, if the item has arrived, you need to arrange to send it back. The law gives you another 14 days to get it to the retailer. Once it has arrived, your refund must be processed within 14 days. If you opted for fast delivery and paid more than the shop’s standard p&p charge for it, it does not have to refund you for the extra cost you paid, only for its basic service.

If an item turns out to be faulty, you have the right to ask for a replacement or repair. The law says that within the first six months the retailer has to prove that the item was not faulty when you bought it if it tries to turn down your request. However, the relationship is with the buyer, so if you have received the item as a gift you will need to ask the person who gave it to you to deal with the retailer.

On the high street, buying something you change your mind about or being given something you don’t like or that doesn’t fit is not covered by consumer law. Instead, you need to rely on the retailer’s goodwill – fortunately, as outlined previously, this can be especially bountiful over Christmas.

Look out for sales small print

Many retailers do offer less generous terms on items that are in the sales. Often a retailer will say that you cannot return things just because you’ve changed your mind, or will offer a smaller window for refunds. Your legal rights apply – although you cannot ask for a refund if a fault was marked up when you bought the item. So if you see a jacket with a button missing and there is a note pointing it out, you cannot later use that as grounds to request a refund.

When you are shopping online, the 14-day cooling-off period stands, even when an item is discounted. Some retailers that offer a longer returns period online will restrict it to the legal minimum during the sales – this is the case at Marks & Spencer, for instance.

Get a gift receipt

To make it easier for people to return unwanted presents, in recent years many retailers have started to offer gift receipts – they don’t say how much the item cost so you can pop them in with your present without giving too much away. The receipt should spell out the seller’s returns policy and the last day for an exchange. It is likely the person making the return will be offered a giftcard or credit note rather than cash.

Look after the item

To qualify for a refund in a shop when there’s nothing wrong with the goods you will usually need to return the item in perfect condition and has its tags still on. For online purchases you are likely to have got items out of their original packaging to examine or try them on. The retailer is not allowed to deduct any of your refund just because you have done this – but it can hold some back if you have done anything that has reduced the value of the item.

As Citizens Advice explains on its website: “Sellers can ask you to pay if something gets damaged because it wasn’t packaged properly. The seller can also ask you to pay (or reduce your refund) if you’ve reduced the value of the item, eg, if you wore shoes outside and scuffed the soles – but they can only do this if it’s in the terms and conditions.”

Track the return

Parcel your return up safely, so it doesn’t get damaged, and consider paying for a tracked return. Gareth Shaw, the Which? head of money, says: “If you are paying for the return you might want to consider tracked postage for peace of mind, and if the retailer hasn’t provided a free, tracked pre-paid label, we recommend you get proof of postage so you can show that you returned your goods.”

Citizens Advice suggests you get a certificate of posting from Royal Mail when you post the item in case you need to show the seller that you did return it.

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