What to Say and Do When Returning an Item

It’s not unusual to buy an item only to get home and wonder, ‘did I choose this?’ Or, ‘did it look like this really?’ sometimes it’s just that the item isn’t the right size or is damaged. Often, the process to return seems tedious and we just pile those things up in the store in disappointment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Modern stores, both physical and online have put in place return policies and systems to make consumers feel free to return items and get items they will enjoy using.

When returning an item, you need to have a receipt of the purchase; you also need to clearly state the reason for return (most stores give a list of reasons to choose from). If the store does not waive the shipping fee, you will be required to pay. Additionally, you need to re-package the item with all its contents. Once the store accepts the item back, you will be required to choose between taking a store credit, choosing another item, or your money back. Note, only a handful of stores allow cash back on returns.

E-consumers are known to return more items than physical store consumers. Statistics show that 30% of all goods bought online are usually returned.  They also show that 92% of consumers are likely to purchase an item again if the return process is easy. To the benefit of both retailers and consumers, about 49% of retailers have a free shipping policy for returns.

The most common reasons for returning an item

  • It’s not functioning as expected. For example, if it is a laptop, it’s heating or the screen is flickering
  • It doesn’t fit. For instance, if you bought a cable that is a little too thin or too wide for your appliance.
  • It’s damaged, it arrived broken or dented.
  • It’s not what you ordered/ it’s the wrong item. You ordered a blender but received a juicer instead.
  • You don’t want it anymore. Maybe delivery delayed and you purchased another item or it was impulse buying and you just changed your mind.
  • Missing accessories; for instance, if a laptop came without a battery or does not have a camera.

Tips on what to do while returning an item

  1. Before anything else confirm if you are still within the return period.

On average, stores offer between two weeks and 1 month for returns to be made. Amazon has a 30 days return window, counted from the day your item is delivered. This policy covers damaged items, defects, and wrong products. Many stores offer much less time either to discourage returns or minimize the chances of consumers returning a used product. Regardless of how much time you have, we recommend you make a call to inform the store of your intention to return. You can say “Hi, my name is (Jake), I bought a laptop a week ago but the screen flickers while charging. I’m planning to return it by (the weekend).”

  1. Trace the receipt.

If you are like me, by the time you open the item, the receipt is already in the trash bin. If the item is not satisfying, you will have to dig up that receipt. Luckily, for online stores, your receipt will most probably be emailed to you so you have no chance of losing it. If it is lost, be sure to inform the store ahead of time. For instance, you can say “Hi, I bought a laptop a week ago but the screen flickers while charging. Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced the receipt, is there a way you can help?”

  1. Review the warranty and product policy.

These two can be found on the manufacturer’s website. Some companies write a brief policy on the products manual. A warranty is a written guarantee issued to the consumer confirming that the company will be willing to repair or replace the item should it malfunction within a specified period. A policy has further details on the store’s procedures. There should be a clause on their return policy. This is important in case the store manager dishonors your request without a satisfying explanation. You can raise a complaint with the consumer complaints department.

  1. List your reasons for returning.

 Before an item is accepted back, there is always a short interview on why you are making a return. The most common reasons for returns are damaged goods or items differing from what the user wanted. Identify and explain to the customer care representative why you are returning the items. The store will decide whether you need to ship the item back or they can send someone to check it out.

  1. Re-package the items.

Most items come with the main item packed separately and the accessories separately, the accessories are usually numbered. Put everything in the box and seal, use the product manual to confirm all parts are available. Enclose the manual as well and seal securely.

  1. Confirm delivery and negotiate for refund or replacement.

Due to varying product types, stores, and manufacturer’s preferences, different products have diverse return or replacement procedures (that’s why you need to read the warranty and policy). The most common options include swapping the item, getting the store’s credit, or a full refund. For instance, you can tell the store manager, “I hope to swap this (laptop) for a (tablet) or another laptop if possible. If not, allow me to get a cash refund.”

Final words

What happens if I’m within the window period and the seller is not cooperating?

You may need to file a complaint. You need your receipts, warranty, order documents, and anything else related to the purchase. Contact the consumer’s affairs department and seek support. In case you do not reach a solution, the issue may be resolved in a court of law using a mediator or arbitrator.

One of the mistakes consumers make is to make demands. As much as returns are your right and the store stands to lose, you will enjoy a more fulfilling exchange if you respectfully transact. You will be surprised how much you can get away with just by showing respect.


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

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