How to return your gadget gifts without any runaround

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December may be the season of giving, but January is the season of returning. Unfortunately, returning that not-quite-right gift can be tricky. With so much shopping happening online these days, it isn’t always clear where to turn—plus, you have to deal with packing, shipping, and other details. And if you don’t have a receipt, sending back electronics and tech gear can be particularly complicated, as it’s often burdened with restocking fees and other annoying restrictions. Here are a few tips to ease the hassle of returning tech products.

If you don’t want to keep it, don’t open it: This is especially important for electronics—t Even if your entire family is waiting for you to rip into your new Kindle Paperwhite, keep the box sealed if you plan to use the credit to get a Fire 4G. The return process will be much smoother if the item is snug in its original, sealed package.

If it’s open, repack it: Keep all of the original packaging and repack carefully, with accompanying accessories, documentation, and other components, in their original condition.

Time is of the essence: The holidays are busy for everyone, but don’t put off making that return. Most retailers have time limits for returning holiday gifts—especially gifts purchased on Black Friday or through other promotions. Procrastinate, and you might be too late.

Check the receipt: In an ideal world, every giver would tuck a gift receipt discreetly under the bow. In the real world, of course, that’s probably not going to happen. If you can’t bring yourself to ask the giver for a paper trail, find out where the item came from and research that retailer’s return policy. Some require a receipt or another proof of purchase; others are more lenient. Be aware, though, that stores willing to accept returns without a receipt typically offer only direct item-for-item exchanges, or perhaps store credit; they may also balk at taking back certain items that have been opened. And if the item’s price has dropped since it was purchased, you’ll likely get credit for the lower price.

Try to go in person: Most retailers that have both online and brick-and-mortar stores let you return items purchased online to a physical store, to avoid shipping costs and hassles. Check with the retailer before you make the trip, however, as many have exceptions for specific types of items (such as electronics), or for catalog or Internet-only items.

Bring your ID: Some retailers, including Best Buy, now re--quire an ID before processing a return. The goal, they say, is to prevent fraud and to keep track of “serial returners.”

Retailer Return Policies

Policies are subject to change, so check before you return.

Amazon: Most items shipped between November 1 and December 31 may be returned until January 31, 2013. Electronics must be in new condition with all original packaging and accessories. After processing, gift returners will receive an Amazon gift card for the amount of the returned item once the return is processed.

Apple: Items from the Apple online store must be returned within 14 days of receipt (or 30 days for iPhones). You can return items (except iPhones) bought at the Apple online store to any Apple retail store for exchange or refund.

Best Buy: Thirty days for all items; receipt required. You may return items purchased online to a Best Buy retail store (photo ID required for in-store returns).

Target: Ninety days for most items; 30 days for electronics. (For items purchased between November 1 and December 25, the 30-day refund period starts on December 26.) The company permits you to make returns through the mail or in stores for most items.

Walmart: Within 15 days for computers and electronics; 90 days for most other items. Returns can be made via mail or at store locations. Without a receipt, you can make returns in-store only for store credit or exchange.

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