Avoiding Post-Holiday Online Shopping Blues

By Jim Finkle

Shopping online from the comfort of your sofa may be convenient, but it can lead to hassles after the holiday purchases are delivered.

As retailers set more strict return policies, unwanted gifts can cause headaches on both sides.

Online retailers may receive more complaints over returns this year, if only because they are poised to post record sales.

U.S. online holiday sales will jump roughly 24 to 25 percent this year, according to projections from two major market research firms. That growth rate dwarfs forecasts for overall holiday spending, which analysts expect will rise between 5 and 7 percent.

Online retailers who were able to ship last-minute orders may have gotten a boost from the New York transit strike, which affected the mobility of about 7 million commuters.

"The ability to order online ... was a major attraction to New York area residents when it was difficult to reach their favorite retail stores," says Tal Zamir, director of the market research firm comScore Networks.

But in some cases, New Yorkers eager to shop online may have ended up accepting return policies that are stricter than those at stores where they normally shop.

One of the biggest frustrations is having to foot the bill to send back unwanted items, says JupiterResearch analyst Patti Freeman Evans.

Somebody returning a heavy desktop computer with a $400 price tag could end up paying more than $150 in shipping fees.

"I don't want to get stuck having to send things back," says Rebecca Miller, an administrative assistant at a Boston law firm who does most of her holiday shopping online.

Online retailers frequently charge a restocking fee for taking back opened items -- especially computers, digital cameras and other electronics products. They average about 15 percent, but can be higher.

Some traditional retailers also impose such fees. They include The Apple Store, Best Buy, Circuit City and Target.

Costco, which is known for having what may be the industry's most liberal customer satisfaction guarantees, is one of several chains that do not charge restocking fees.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, Miller prefers buying from familiar sites such as Macys.com, PotteryBarn.com and WilliamsSonoma.com -- places where she shopped before they opened online stores and which will allow the return of goods at local outlets.

But she shuns the Web when it comes to electronics -- products like iPod digital music players and computers.

She wants to look a salesperson in the eye, ask questions and know that she can bring the item back.

"I just need more help," she says.

Her approach has helped her to avoid getting caught up in one of the biggest traps on Web shopping -- dealing with retailers that don't accept returns under any circumstances.

Outpost.com advertises a 30-day money-back guarantee on most items. But there can be exceptions, conditions and/or restrictions. Its Web site says that in some cases it has the right to outright refuse returns on merchandise from Apple, Axis, Casio, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Micron or Toshiba, among others.

J&R.com charges restocking fees, but its site doesn't say how much. Charges are determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the condition of the goods and packaging material.

Amazon.com says it charges a 50 percent restocking fee on returns of CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, software and video games that have been taken out of their plastic wrap.

To avoid some of these problems, consumers can look to shopping sites for advice. PriceGrabber.com, Shopping.com, Shopzilla.com, and YahooShopping.com offer ratings on Web retailers, along with reviews from individual shoppers.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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