SPENDING: RITE OF RETURN

Your family's gone back home, but you're still trying to figure out what to do with their gifts--like that boxed set of "The Golden Girls" you know you'll never watch. Hurry up and hustle back to the store, because this year it's harder than ever to make returns and get refunds. Retailers, who expect to see about 6 percent of their merchandise walk back through the doors, have gotten tough. They've shortened allowable return periods, limited refunds to sales prices or like-product exchanges, asked for shipping or "restocking" fees and they're now thumbing their noses altogether at folks identified as habitual returners. Get around all the red tape (funny how it looked like ribbon just two weeks ago) by being as aggressive as the stores. Here's how:

^ Look up the company's return policy before you head back to the store. That way you'll have ammunition if the first answer is no.

^ Return items to their original state before bringing them back. Closed boxes, bubble wrap and instruction manuals will all help you get full-price refunds. Bring whatever paper you have--receipts, gift receipts, credit-card statements, price tags--so you can prove the item came from the store in question.

^ Have pity on the poor returns clerk, but hang tough. Ask to speak to a manager. If you can't get a proper refund, send a follow-up letter to the corporate president.

^ Consider setting your own no-returns policy. Unless something is broken when you buy it, don't return anything. Re-gift, donate, have a post-holiday swap with friends or keep it as a souvenir of a sweet, if ill-executed, sentiment. You'll save time... and those already frayed holiday nerves.

SPENDING: RITE OF RETURN | News