Returning unwanted gifts: What are your rights?

It is about this time of year that you see the customer service desks in stores indundated with people who all want to return unwanted gifts. But did you know that shops do not have to accept returns unless an item is faulty, not as described or unfit for purpose? And also, legally, the only person who can return a gift is the one who paid for it in the first place. Thankfully most stores do offer a returns policy as a goodwill gesture, and will allow you to have a refund, choose an exchange or give you a credit note, provided that you still have the original receipt. There are still a great many high street stores however, that do not offer a refund policy and are under no obligation to do so. So what do you do if you have an unwanted gift and are not sure if you are able to return it or not?

First see if the receipt has a returns policy actually printed on it. You may also see if the rights of the person who bought the gift have been transferred to you by looking to see if your name is written on the receipt anywhere, for instance, it may say; ‘Bought as a gift for Clare’. This means that you can now return it. If there is no discernible returns policy on the receipt, do not give up, many managers are allowed to use their discretion. Always be polite when speaking to them and ask if there is anything they can do for you. They will look at the item and weigh up if it will be easy to resell it.

Don’t forget that most stores will impose a time limit to return unwanted gifts so don’t leave it too late to visit the store and try and get a refund. Typical time restrictions are 28 days or even 90 days, but check with the store as each one will differ. And remember, that larger stores are more likely to give you a refund as a goodwill gesture as they can probably afford to make a little bit of a loss on an unseasonal gift, than a smaller business.

There are different rules for returning gifts bought online. If your gift was bought online, over the phone, or by mail order you may have additional rights to return it under distance selling regulations. If the product was bought online, by post or by telephone, The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 (DSR) give consumers a ‘cooling-off’ period of seven working days. This period starts, not from the time you ordered the goods, but from the day after you received the goods, and during this time you can cancel for any reason. However, it is worth remembering that many online, telephone or mail order shops have goodwill returns policies allowing an extended period in which to return unwanted goods over and above DSR rules.

If you received the product as a gift, you’ll need proof of purchase, and to know the date the gift was received by the buyer to return it under these rules. In some cases you may have to pay the return postage, though some online retailers with high street branches let you take items ordered online back to a branch.

There are some gifts you cannot return, such as:

  • Many music, DVD and computer software retailers refuse to change or refund products that are no longer sealed.
  • You also won’t usually be able to return an item if it was made to order or personalised, or if it is perishable. This includes made-to-measure clothing, food and flowers.
  • Most items that come into contact with the body during use are excluded from shop returns policies for hygiene reasons – even if you’ve not used them. Examples include earrings, make-up, toiletries and some items of clothing.

If you feel that you have an unwanted gift and you should be able to return it, but the store is not allowing you to, you still have some recourse. You can report your issue to your local trading standards office or contact Which? Legal Service for tailored legal advice.