Navigating Return Policies for Netbooks and Mobile Gear

Retailers' return policies for electronics can be all over the map. Some give you 14 weeks to return a GPS, laptop, netbook, or other piece of hardware if you don't like it or if it's defective. A few give you up to 90 days. Many charge you a restocking fee, usually 15 percent, if you return something that's not defective. All told, in this age of instant buyer's remorse, it's important to pay attention to a retailer's return policy.

This week, I'll guide you toward some online retailers' return policies, plus offer tips for how to avoid, or minimize, buyer's remorse.

Restocking Fees: Who Charges, and Who Doesn't

I understand why some retailers feel it's important to protect themselves by charging a restocking fee. There are plenty of opportunists out there who would buy a laptop, use it for 29 days out of the 30-day return period, send it back, then start over with another laptop from another retailer.

And yet, consumers don't have an easy time deciding on a tech product to buy, given all the choices and the decline in big-box electronics retailers, where they can get hands-on with a product before buying. Deciding when to buy a particular tech product isn't easy, either, given the frequency of faster-cheaper-better product introductions that make previous versions pale by comparison. In the current Great Recession, it's more important than ever to know that when you do make a tech purchase, you can return the product within a reasonable amount of time if it doesn't live up to your expectations.

With that in mind, here's a quick look at some online retailer return policies, arranged in order from best to worst:

Costco has one of one of the most generous return policies around: 90 days for computers and electronics, with a 100 percent refund. You also get free technical support. The downside: Product choices are pretty limited.

J&R offers a 30-day return/exchange policy on opened merchandise purchased online or through mail order (14 days if purchased in store). Return credits exclude shipping and handling charges. But no restocking fee is charged. J&R's prices are fairly competitive, too.

Staples allows you to return your purchase for a full refund if you're not completely satisfied. Computers and most electronic devices must be returned within 14 days of purchase.

Office Depot allows you to return tech purchases with a full refund within 14 days of purchase. A 15 percent restocking fee is charged if the box is missing any components.

Amazon gives you 30 days to return a computer. However, your return is subject to a 15 percent restocking fee. Amazon's return policy for other electronics is a bit vague: "Returns that are not the result of our error will be subject to a return shipping fee which will be deducted from the refund." Though the fee isn't disclosed online, I suspect it's the usual 15 percent restocking fee.

Dell.com allows for returns within 21 days "from the date on the packing slip or invoice"--meaning the clock starts ticking on those 21 days the moment you make a purchase. Returns that aren't defective or a result of a Dell error are subject to a restocking fee of up to 15 percent.

Buy.com gives you 14 days from the date your product is shipped for returns, which are subject to a 15 percent restocking fee.

Best Buy's return policy for computers, monitors, laptops, projectors, camcorders, and digital cameras is 14 days from the original purchase, plus a 15 percent restocking fee.

Ways to Avoid Buyer's Remorse

Even if the tech product you want to buy isn't available in a retail store near you, go to the store anyway. Spend some time with similar products. You may get a feel for the features you like and don't like, which can help you make a better buying decision if you have to buy something sight unseen online.

Before you buy a tech product, read customer reviews as well as reviewers' opinions. Yes, some users are dedicated churls who aren't happy with anything. Others have a vested interest in putting a positive spin on a product. Even so, there are plenty of legitimate reviews out there. Amazon does a particularly good job of presenting customer reviews. For the Samsung N120, for instance, Amazon prominently displays, side by side, the "most helpful favorable review" next to the "most helpful critical review." (Amazon site visitors can rate the helpfulness of each review they read.)

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Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the co-author of Getting Organized in the Google Era, to be published by Crown in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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