Mobile Computing: Many Happy Returns

Feature: Online Merchants' Return Policies

Buying notebooks and PDAs online is enormously convenient. But for obvious reasons, shopping online doesn't allow you to perform a close-up, hands-on inspection of an item before you plunk down the credit card.

That's why it's crucial to fully understand the online retailer's returns policy before you buy. Some e-commerce sites offer fairly liberal returns for notebooks and PDAs, as long as you've got all the packaging and the device is in like-new condition. Others adhere to draconian policies that aren't at all favorable to consumers.

Here's what you can expect from four online purveyors of notebooks and PDAs, along with tips on returning your gear with minimal hassle.

From its days as primarily an online bookseller, has blossomed into an enormous online mall. Not only does sell a variety of notebooks, PDAs, and other electronics itself, but it also has arrangements with several merchants, such as Circuit City, to sell electronics through the site.

Return policy: Notebooks and PDAs sold by (or the Target at can be returned within 30 days of receipt as long as the item is in new condition, in its original packaging, and is accompanied by its original accessories. Go to for details on notebook and PDA returns.

Shipping charges: You pay, unless the product is defective or was somehow at fault.

Restocking fee: 15 percent of the sales price or higher, if you send back the computer without all its accessories and original packaging, if you damaged the computer through misuse, or under certain other conditions. Otherwise, no restocking fee applies.

Kudos/caveats:'s consumer-friendly return policy takes some of the tension out of buying online. But pay close attention: Even though you're shopping for a notebook or PDA at, you may actually be buying the item from Circuit City, J&R Music and Computer World, Office Depot, or another merchant. Each merchant has its own return policy; see "Arranging Amazon Marketplace Returns & Refunds" for more info.

Billing itself as "the Internet Superstore," sells more than 1 million items, including computers, electronics, CDs, and DVDs.'s prices are usually competitive, and the retailer often offers free shipping. You can order by phone, too (800/800-0800), but the company tacks on a $2.50 fee for the privilege.

Return policy: You can return opened notebooks and most PDAs within 30 days of the ship date for a full refund. For clearance items, the return period is 14 days of the shipping date. For details, check the Web site.

Shipping charges: You pay, unless the product is defective.

Restocking fee: None.

Kudos/caveats: Overall,'s return policy is consumer friendly. But wireless PDAs (such as BlackBerry devices) can't be refunded once the box has been opened, unless the device is defective.

PC Connection

The catalog/online retailer offers some 100,000 products for PC and Mac users. In business since 1982, PC Connection offers fast and affordable shipping and helpful telephone support.

Return policy: Though it's possible to return a notebook you've purchased, used, and then decided you don't like, you must obtain a Return Merchandise Authorization number. For items over $1000, returns must be approved by a supervisor. "And you'll need a pretty good excuse to get that return approved," a customer service representative told me. You'll also be hit with a restocking fee. Defective notebooks and PDAs may be returned within 30 days of purchase, provided a RMA number is issued. But PC Connection will repair or replace the item only. Defective wireless PDAs can be returned within 72 hours of activation or 30 days from invoice, whichever is less. For details, check the Web site.

Shipping charges: You pay, unless the product is defective.

Restocking fee: 15 percent of the price for opened, nondefective items.

Kudos/caveats: I'm a longtime PC Connection customer, and except for a shipment that took two days instead of one to arrive, I've had no complaints. But if you're susceptible to buyer's remorse, shop elsewhere. offers a variety of notebooks and PDAs at compelling prices. But this online retailer has one of the strictest return policies I've seen. It's one site you may want to avoid.

Return policy: The four scariest words a prospective computer buyer could ever hear--"all sales are final"--are the basis of's returns policy. If you don't like the notebook or PDA you've purchased, you're essentially out of luck. If your computer or handheld is defective, it must be returned to the manufacturer; won't accept the return for credit or replacement.

Shipping charges: You pay for shipping to the manufacturer.

Restocking fee: 20 percent if a product is found not to be defective upon return.

Kudos/caveats:'s return policy is clearly stated on its Web site. But unless the retailer is offering a staggeringly compelling price cut on a notebook or PDA, and you're absolutely sure you want the device, I'd steer clear.

Tips for Getting the Best Returns

  • Always--and I mean always--check a retailer's return policy before you buy. Policies can vary widely; compare's to's return requirements, for example. If the policy isn't clearly worded and easily accessible on the retailer's Web site, call. And if you can't call, shop elsewhere.
  • If you have any second thoughts about the item, don't open it when it arrives. As a rule, retailers are less likely to accept returns on notebooks and PDAs that have been opened than those that haven't.
  • File receipts in an easy-to-find location. Keep a copy of any e-mail confirmations sent to you by the retailer. You may need the receipt or the information contained within a message to initiate a return.
  • Hold on to the device's complete packaging for at least the duration of the retailer's return period. Many consumer electronics are intricately boxed, containing several cardboard inserts. Losing any of the packaging elements could subject you to a restocking fee.
  • If space permits, hold on to the notebook or PDA's packaging even after the return period. Why? You may want to resell the item later, and used electronic devices that include the original packaging, manual, and accessories tend to fetch better prices at EBay and other online auctions.
  • Always ship your returned item via UPS, FedEx, or another carrier that issues a tracking number. If the item gets lost in transit, you'll have a way to track it--and proof that you sent it.
  • When shipping back a notebook or PDA, insure the item for its full retail value. Should the product get damaged during shipment, you--not the retailer--may be the loser.
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