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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Paper Doll Organizes Your Many Happy Returns

Shopping days have formal titles now. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Grey Thursday. (That was the nickname for Thanksgiving because so many stores were open for part of the holiday.) All of those titles are marketing tools to boost retailers' bottom lines. Depending on your purchasing style, those days either lightened your wallet or helped you stretch your holiday dollar.

I propose that what we actually need is a Return & Exchange Day (or, y'know, Week) where a significant number of the cashiers, registers and customer service departments would be given over to supplying assistance with returns and exchanges. Failing that, let's look at some simple strategies for taking those gifts that don't fit (your age, size or lifestyle) and exchanging them for something (financial or tangible) that's a little more appropriate, without losing value or sanity.


Store return and exchange policies may seem similar, but each has its own twist. Some stores require a receipt for every return or exchange, while Lowe's won't ask for a receipt if you use a credit card or provide your phone number when you purchase by check or cash. Some retailers require you to show ID no matter how the gift was originally purchased, and others, like Best Buy, have seasonal return policies that differ from (and are more lenient than) their year-round policies.

From Kohl's and Nordstrom, which generally let you return just about anything, anytime, to retailers that only allow exchanges of damaged items for the same (but undamaged) thing, to stores that charge restocking fees, and every variation in between, it's important to know a store's policy before you buy (or, in the case of gifts you've received, before you return or exchange).

In theory, brick-and-mortar stores should have their returns and exchange policies posted near the checkout lines, but this is not always the case. Some stores conveniently print their policies on the reverse of their receipts, but it's not universal. You might ask a cashier, "if that doesn't work for us, what's your return policy?" but seventeen year-old part-time staffers probably aren't going to have the same sense of diligence that you'd want from someone guiding your financial decision-making.

Caveat emptor. In fact, buyers, don't just beware, but be prepared. Before you shop (or while shopping, if you've got the internet in your pocket), call up a store's policy by typing the store's name and "return policy" into your favorite search engine, and take a moment to read the fine print. Think of it as an insurance policy; two minutes now might save $200 later.

To get you started, here are links to some of the more popular stores' return policies. Please note that many stores have different policies for returning store merchandise vs. online merchandise. For example, Coldwater Creek allows you to return catalog or online purchases at their stores, while Old Navy requires that some merchandise be returned by mail.

Clothing and Department Stores

Coldwater Creek
Lord & Taylor
Old Navy
The Gap

Specialty Stores

Barnes & Noble
Best Buy
Container Store (then search "return promise")
Toys R Us

Also, be sure to read Consumer Reports' 2012 Naughty or Nice List of most the beloved and despised return policies.


Paper Doll has talked many times about receipts, from the classic Mom, Why Is There a Receipt Stuff In the Turkey? to What's Your Receipt Receiver Style? to our recent two-part series on popular and lesser-known digital receipt management tools.

The easiest way to ensure a smooth return or exchange experience is to have the receipt handy, so as you shop this season, keep the following in mind:

1) Ask for a gift receipt before you ring up your purchases, says Professional Organizer and Professional Daily Money Manager Nanette Duffey. If you're purchasing multiple gifts for multiple people (especially those in different households), request a gift receipt for each item.

Not all stores provide gift receipts, but many do. Mark the name of the person to whom you're giving the gift on the gift receipt so you know what's what. (Note: gift receipts generally don't have the prices on them, so you're safe tucking them in with whatever you give to the adults on your list. For kids, you might want to hold onto the gift receipts until you can give them to their parents.)

2) Save your holiday receipts for anything returnable. Consider keeping these receipts separate from the receipts you normally save for budgeting purposes, tax deductions or "big ticket" personal purchases.

A few #10 business envelopes or a Smead Tagalong Organizer

will help you divide up receipts for gifts you bought for your immediate family, your partner's side of the family, friends, and service providers so that you can find the receipts more easily when necessary.

3) Take note of the return deadlines. Typical policies for returns or exchanges with receipts can be anywhere from 30 to 90 days, with seasonal extensions common. When you get home from shopping, grab your calendar and note the return deadlines on the receipts and gift receipts.

Next, mark your calendar for a week or so before the earliest deadline and schedule a return day for the items you bought for your family. (Later on, when you receive gifts with gift receipts, add them to the pile.) If you're an efficient holiday bargain shopper, you can probably get it all done in one morning and then reward yourself with brunch. (Mmmmm. Waffles!)


Paper Doll realizes that not everyone is quite so organized (yet) as to keep track of their return and exchange deadlines on their calendars. But this is one of those times where technology comes to the rescue.

Return Guru is a free app that keeps track of your purchases and returns for you. Just use your iPhone or Windows phone to snap a photo of your receipt, and the app will remind you of upcoming return due dates. Snazzy!
  • Sign up for a free account at www.ReturnGuru.com.
  • Snap a photo of your receipt or email online receipts to .
  • Receive timely reminders for each thing you purchase according to each individual store's return policies.
  • Skedaddle to the store to return or exchange what you don't want for what better suits you.

Receipt Guru even has a detailed and handy list of store policies rated by the ease of making a return or exchange. Sort by store name, ease rating, return period, receipt required or policy details. Nordstrom scores a perfect 100%, while Sears, Gamestop and Ross all score failing marks. Tsk.


To make the return process as stress-free as possible, consider these tips:

If you plan to exchange rather than merely return an item, do so as early in the season as possible to avail yourself of the widest array of merchandise.

Sort receipts by store and match the items to be returned. You may want to separate each set of returns into a different canvas bag.

Plan your route. Head to the farthest store or location, first, so that as you make your returns, you'll work your way back to your car (at the mall) or home (at the end of the day).

Set the stage. Depending on how many returns you have to accomplish for various family members, this could be an all-day affair. Eat a hearty protein-rich meal, just as you did (or should have done) on Black Friday. Wear comfy shoes. Bring your mp3 player or tablet to keep yourself entertained in long lines. Pack a healthy snack.

Smile and be friendly. The cashiers and customer service people have had a long season, and they're tired and cranky, too. Treat them like human beings and not obstacles to getting out and on your way. The nicer you are, the nicer they'll be, and the sooner you'll get the resolution you desire.

Many happy returns!

posted on: 12/4/2012 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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