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Do Retail Stores Have To Accept Returns?

Often, a retailer can refuse to accept a customer's return. Many business practices have policies that allow customers to return products for a full refund or store credit, but not every retailer has an accommodating refund policy.

As a customer, you may wonder what options are available if you want to return or replace a purchase and the retailer doesn't allow it. Your options may depend on whether the store has a legitimate reason to refuse a return.

State Refund and Return Laws

Unfortunately, most states lack specific statewide refund laws. Refund and exchange policies tend to vary widely by store.

Generally speaking, the states with refund policy laws require a business to notify customers whether it has its own policy. In Hawaii, for example, merchants can choose one of four customer return policies and notify customers with clear signage. If they fail to do so, customers are entitled to a refund.

Federal Refund and Return Laws

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a cooling-off rule. This federal law gives customers a three-day period when they can legally change their mind about particular transactions, such as door-to-door sales.

There are exceptions to the cooling-off rule, such as:

  • Transactions for real estate
  • Sales at art and craft fairs
  • Requested repairs or maintenance

If you want to cancel a transaction under the cooling-off rule, you must sign, date, and mail a copy of the provided cancellation form within three business days of the original transaction. If you didn't get a cancellation form, you can write and mail a cancellation letter instead.

Returns for Defective Products

You can return a defective product under consumer protection laws for express or implied warranties. Defects could be hazardous or cause the product to fail to serve its purpose.

A retailer must remedy a defective product in one of three ways:

  • Replace the product with an identical item without the defect
  • Repair the defective product in a reasonable time or number of attempts
  • Refund the customer

Sellers can decide to repair or replace broken items instead of refunding your money. If they do, the result should be equivalent to the original product you agreed to buy.

Store Return Policies and Exceptions

Refund policies are part of the sales agreement when you buy an item at a store. It is a good idea to read the return policy before purchasing to understand your obligations and options.

These policies often contain exclusions. Two common types of exclusions that retailers won't let you return include final sales and damaged items.

Returns for Final Sale Products

Sellers may mark individual items as “final sale," which means you cannot return or exchange the product later. Some storewide policies declare that all sales are final. If you buy a final sale product, the retailer can refuse to accept a return.

Examples of products that sellers commonly mark for final sale include:

  • Perishable goods like food or cosmetics
  • Customized products like engraved jewelry
  • Clearance items at deep discounts
  • Products that may pose a hygienic concern between different customers

State laws often require sellers to notify customers of final sale policies. Retailers may display final sale policies at visible locations like their website, item tags, or a sign near the cash register. A customer who fails to notice these disclaimers usually doesn't have legal grounds to force the seller to give their money back.

Returns for Damaged Products

You may lose the option to return an item you broke or used. A store's return policy might specify that an item for return must be in saleable condition. In other words, its quality should be generally the same as unsold identical products so the retailer can sell the item to another customer.

Examples of unsaleable products often include:

  • Unsealed cosmetics
  • Clothing with rips, holes, or stains
  • Shoes with dirt or scuffs
  • Furniture with scratches or tears
  • Electronics with the customer's modifications
  • Items that have a strong odor, such as cigarette smoke

Some return policies also specify that merchandise must be in the original packaging. The seller may refuse the return if the packaging is missing or broken.

Time Limits for Returns

Most store policies give customers a limited period of time to request a refund for the purchase price. Your timing might also affect the type of refund you receive.

Here's an example of how a store might structure its own refund policy:

  • A refund in the original form of payment, such as a credit card or cash refund, for products returned within 30 days of purchase
  • A refund with store credit for products returned from 30 to 90 days after the time of sale
  • No returns after 90 days following the purchase

State laws typically require sellers to make any existing return deadlines clear and accessible to customers. They usually must also alert you to restocking fees and other terms of a return.

If retailers lack or fail to inform you of a specific return policy, they might be subject to a default time limit under state law. For example, Massachusetts requires sellers to accept returns within a reasonable period, and New York gives customers 30 days to return products.

Resources for Consumers

If a business fails to respect your rights as a consumer, you have multiple courses of action available. You could file a complaint with the FTC, the state attorney general, or the relevant consumer protection agency.

If you decide to take legal action, you can also seek assistance from an experienced legal professional familiar with your state's refund laws.

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