Article Title: "Return Policies Run Gamut For Goods You Buy Online "

Author: RUSSELL SHAW 
Section: Internet & Technology 

Date: 8/14/2003 


FOR INVESTOR'S BUSINESS DAILY

Does the sweater you ordered online not fit? Is there a loose leg on the office furniture that came to your door? What about that scanner that doesn't seem to want to scan?

Most online retailers offer at least some type of return policy. But policies can vary widely from site to site. That's why it's best to check out the details before clicking "buy."

"Policies run the entire gamut," said Frank Fiore, a guide to online shopping for About.com and author of several books. Sometimes you'll get 100% of your money back, he says. Other times, you're lucky to get a store credit.

Here's a sampling of policies around the Web:

Seattle's Amazon.com Inc. accepts most returned items for a full refund within 30 days of delivery. The most notable exceptions are compact discs, digital video discs and video games that have been opened. That's because a consumer could open up a disc, make a copy and then mail it back.

In addition to its own online stores, Amazon.com also offers online ordering services for several brick-and-mortar retailers. The general policy for these Amazon.com partners, such as Target Stores and Office Depot, is that you can't return the items at the physical stores. You have to ship them back.

According to the Office Depot return and exchanges page on Amazon.com, most merchandise is accepted for return within 30 days of purchase. Exceptions include unopened software and computers.

BMG Music Service, a unit of Germany's Bertelsmann AG, follows a similar hard line when it comes to music sales. Its returns policy is to "allow members to return an item for replacement or credit if it is damaged, defective or incorrect."

In such instances, BMG offers to send out a replacement copy of the original music selection, credit the customer's account or provide an alternate selection.

BMG encourages you to send a cover note with the returned merchandise, explaining the grievance and preferred method of resolution.

Dell Inc., based in Round Rock, Texas, lets you return new hardware, parts and unopened software within 30 days.

Customers fill out an online form, after which they receive a credit return authorization number. The items must be returned "in as-new condition" no more than five days after Dell issues the number. Shipping costs for the return must be paid by the customer.

Household goods retailer Fingerhut Companies Inc., based in Hopkins, Minn., also offers a return option within 30 days of receiving the item. Between 30 and 180 days after receipt, Fingerhut's general policy is to consider a prorated cash or credit adjustment based on the age and condition of the product.

After 180 days, no returns are offered.

As with most other retailers, software and music CDs can be accepted for credit or refund only if the original packaging was not opened. "Identical product" exchanges are sometimes granted, however.

Apparel and outdoor living retailer L.L. Bean Inc. asks that customers who ship back merchandise complete the returns section on their order's packing slip or fill out a downloadable form.

For each item that is being returned, the form asks customers to mark one of 17 "reason codes." Codes include such issues as "quality unsatisfactory," "care instructions failed," "too small" or "did not like material."

L.L. Bean requires the shipping charge to be paid on return items, but waives the charge for U.S. customers who simply are exchanging merchandise.

RitzCamera.com, the online unit of Ritz Camera Centers Inc. in Beltsville, Md., has a shorter time limit for returned items. It's 10 days for all wireless phone, digital and video products and 30 days for all other items except opened software.

Unlike most other online retailers, RitzCamera.com provides exchanges at its 1,200 Ritz retail locations. Damaged or defective goods can be exchanged or returned only online.

Staples Inc. of Framingham, Mass., has one of the more liberal return policies. Returns are accepted at the more than 1,500 Staples stores in the U.S., with a full refund offered on office supplies regardless of the purchase or delivery date. Free pickup on returned items is provided if the goods are defective.

Computer hardware, digital cameras, phones and office furniture purchased from Staples must be returned within 14 days of receipt. The reason for the shorter period, notes Staples on its site, is "because technology changes so quickly."

Target.com, the online unit of Minneapolis' Target Corp., offers in-store return services on most items. Its 90-day returns policy is one of the longest in effect among major online and offline retailers.

According to Fiore, in-store returns are becoming more common. "The problem and cost of getting the purchase back to the merchant was driving away Web shoppers, but things are changing," he said. "Many stores are allowing for pickup and returns at their local store."

Walmart.com offers in-store return options for most products, with exceptions for computer-related goods, and perishable items such as flowers and food.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer's time window for returned items varies from 15 days to 90 days, depending on the item.

"Find out the return policy before you buy," Fiore said. "Just as important, find out how you can reach them if there is a problem. An e-mail address is not enough. Get a phone number too."