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The problems of what to do when Missy's doll won't talk, walk or wet, and Junior's race car won't go vroom are as much a holiday tradition as Jingle Bells and eggnog.

This year, the National Retail Federation expects holiday gift returns to be a $65 billion tradition, as friends and family members open their stockings Thursday to find a present that's the wrong size, the wrong color or just ... wrong.

As early as Friday, gift-givers and receivers alike will go from decking the halls to schlepping the malls. Combined with bargain-hunters scooping up post-Christmas mark-downs and shoppers cashing in gift cards, Dec. 26 has become the second-busiest retail day of the year.

Returns add up to 23 percent of all holiday spending, and since shoppers clearly won't be alone on the return portion of your yuletide retail trip, they should make sure their patience is in the full upright and locked position, warns Melanie Duquesnel, chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Michigan.

"Pack your patience," Duquesnel says. "If you know that you're going to return something the day after Christmas, you're going to stand in line for an hour and a half. People are crazy."

Retailers do make special efforts to accommodate returns, notes Shandra Tollefson, a spokeswoman for electronics retailer Best Buy. Instead of the usual 15-day return period at Best Buy, "Almost any product purchased in November or December may be returned or exchanged through Jan. 15," Tollefson said in an email.

Other retailers, such as Michigan-based Meijer, try to help consumers stuck without a receipt. "Our systems have the ability to pull a receipt for a customer if they used a credit card for the purchase and can provide the credit card upon returning the item," Frank Guglielmi, a Meijer spokesman said in an email. However, that option lasts for only a week or so after purchase, so you're probably out of luck with something picked up on Black Friday.

Stores also can verify purchases made under their loyalty programs, while some others, such as Costco, just need to scan the bar code on the original packaging to verify that the store carries that item, says Duquesnel of the Better Business Bureau.

But in most cases, you should be able to get a gift receipt from the gift-giver, which won't disclose the price of your gift. More than 60 percent of holiday purchases now receive a gift receipt, according to the Retail Federation.

On the other hand, retailers don't want to be taken for chumps, either. More than 5 percent of holiday returns are fraudulent, the Retail Federation says, and that's expected to cost the industry $3.8 billion this year. Return fraud usually involves merchandise that was shoplifted, stolen or purchased with bogus checks, stolen or counterfeit gift cards or stolen credit cards. But retailers also are on the lookout for the practice of "wardrobing." That's the practice where some shoppers take a fancy cocktail dress for a party or a big-screen TV or game system for a family gathering, then try to return it after the special occasion.

"If you try on the boots that your husband gave you and you wear them them out in the snow and salt, Macy's or any other big retailer is going to say, 'No.' You have to be mindful that the retailer has to resell that item," Duquesnel says.

Video games, CDs, DVDs, tents, airbeds and electronic media all must be returned unopened or, if defective, will be exchanged only for the same item at Meijer and many other stores. Computers, tables, game systems, cell phones, MP3 players and anything else with an electronic memory gets the same treatment: If it's opened and it works, the store won't take it back.

And some items are simply not returnable: tobacco and alcohol products, for example, as well as gift cards, blood glucose monitors and, of course, the one holiday gift where you certainly don't want the wrong size: ammunition.

And forget about getting a refund in cash. Unless you paid for the gift with a check or debit card, most retailers are going to limit the gift-buyer to the original form of payment, and the gift recipient to store credit or a store-brand gift card. If you don't have a receipt at Macy's, for example, you'll get a "Happy Returns" gift card for the item's lowest selling price within the last 180 days.

"Ninety-eight percent of the stores that I'm aware of aren't giving cash refunds," Duquesnel says. "They're trying to maintain that profit in the company rather than having the money go out the door to another retailer. So be aware that you may have to buy something else in that store."

Other gift-return considerations:

Rights and wrongs: Your only legally enforceable right is to return defective merchandise; other returns and exchanges are strictly at the discretion of the retailer. If the retailer fails to adhere to its own stated policy, you can then complain, first to a store manager or supervisor, then to the Better Business Bureau, attorney general's office or Federal Trade Commission.

Exchange early, but consider doing it online: If you want that singing Feliz Navidad sweater in green rather than red, exchange it right away before everything is gone. But rather than head to the store, order it online right away, then wait for the crowds to thin before you head back to the store for the actual return.

Know the deadlines: For simple exchanges of something you don't like, time may be limited. Some retailers extend the holiday gift return deadline, but anything more than 14-30 days from purchase could be declined.

If it's broken, where does it go? A defective product might have to go back to the manufacturer rather than the retailer. Check first.

Really try to find that receipt: Make every effort to bring the paperwork.

Be prepared to show ID: Many big retailers track your returns, and most use third-party services to handle that chore. The aim is to avoid fraud or overly frequent returns, and about 1 percent of all merchandise returns are turned down for those reasons. So, just like at the airport, stores will want to see a driver license or other government-issued ID.

Use the buddy system: If you're heading to a brick-and-mortar store, Duquesnel suggests taking a friend. You'll have someone to chat with in line, and you can spell each other, with one person shopping the sales and the other person waiting.

Track it: Online returns typically require a return number, and Internet retailers frequently provide a pre-addressed, prepaid shipping label and special form for returns. Get them from the gift-giver. Many online returns can't be returned to the same address from which they were shipped.

boconnor@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2145

For many happy returns

The National Retail Federation offers these tips if you're returning a gift:

Unwrap carefully: Original packaging is a must for some retailers when it comes to returns. As best you can, make sure all boxes and gifts are returned in the condition they were purchased.

Give the gift of receipts: While many retailers may allow consumers to make returns without an original or gift receipt, some don't. To ensure a hassle-free return, it's still a great idea to present one. If you know family or friends have plans to return an item, provide them with the original or gift receipt.

Make a list and check it twice: Many retailers have their return policies posted online or displayed within stores. Gift-givers should make a list of where they shopped and make note of their return policies.

Know your online store policies, too: While millions of gift-givers are in-store shoppers, many are purchasing gifts online. When making an online return, it's important to know who pays for shipping (the customer or retailer) and the exact location that returned items should be sent.

Keep calm and shop on: Just like shopping leading up to the holidays, returns can be hectic for retailers and shoppers alike. Come prepared with patience when returning merchandise.

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