5 holiday shopping traps
Be prepared for revised return policies, restocking fees and gift card gotchas. Plus, some holiday tipping tips.
If you haven't started your holiday shopping in earnest yet, you're probably about to. And you know that finding the right gift at the right price can be challenging -- especially when deep discounts and doorbuster sales abound.
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The latest issue of Consumer Reports highlights five traps holiday shoppers can avoid. "Knowing how to navigate sales, comparison shop, and cut through salespeople jargon is half the battle to stress-free holiday shopping," said Tod Marks, senior editor at CR. "Shoppers need to take precautionary measures before purchasing gifts to make sure they are getting the right product, for the right price, with no strings attached."
Deep discount come-ons. Doorbuster sales promise big savings, and not just on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, when shoppers go online. Consumer Reports found an electric percolator "on sale" at Kohl's stores and Kohls.com for $61.99, a discount from the regular $69.99. But those prices are higher than the $59.99 manufacturer's suggested retail price. Retailers -- especially discount stores -- commonly sell below MSRP. Using a Web search, CR found better deals. The best price was $30.03 plus $8.21 shipping at Salestores.com.
- What to do? Comparison shop before buying and don't worry about missing a sale. It's likely that another one will come around before the season ends.
Gift card gotchas. New federal rules for gift cards limit issuers' ability to charge certain fees and impose expiration dates. Inactivity and service fees can be charged only if a card hasn't been used for at least one year. But issuers can still charge fees to buy cards, as they do for the bank-issued variety -- those that bear a credit card logo. For example, expect to pay $3 to $7 for an American Express gift card. Also, gift cards are not protected if an issuer goes bankrupt. If that's the case, the card could be worthless.
Beyond that, many people never get around to spending their gift cards. A quarter of people surveyed by the magazine in October 2009 who received gift cards the previous year said they hadn't redeemed their almost one-year-old cards.
- What to do? Give cash or a check. Cash never expires or loses its value, and is good anywhere. If the check is never cashed, the money stays in your bank account.
Extended-warranty pitches. Salespeople push service plans because retailers keep 50% or more of what they charge for them, but they are notoriously bad deals. Some repairs are already covered by the standard warranty that comes automatically with the product. Consumer Reports' data show that products seldom break within the extended-warranty window of coverage. When items do break, the repairs, on average, cost about the same as the warranty.
- What to do? Some credit cards automatically extend the manufacturer's warranty on anything purchased with them, so check the card's website. Even if the warranty has expired, check with the retailer or manufacturer, which might choose or be legally obligated to repair and make good on a product that prematurely fails or otherwise shows signs of a defect.
Return-policy limitations. Some retailers relax their return policies during the holiday season, but don't count on it and always learn the rules before buying. Some companies have different return policies for in-store, online, or mail-order purchases.
- What to do? Keep the receipt and let the recipient know the return policy. If the store provides a special gift receipt, include that with your gift.
Restocking fees. Many items, especially electronics and special orders, are subject to restocking fees that range from 10% to 25% if they are not returned in a factory-sealed box.
- What to do? Don't open the package unless you're sure you want the item inside. Items such as computer software, music CDs, and movie DVDs generally aren't returnable if the seal is broken. If a fee is charged, try to negotiate a partial refund, but never pay a fee if the item is defective.
Speaking of holiday gifts, how much should you plan to tip your housekeeper, child care provider, or hairdresser this holiday season? The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey early this year -- when memories of holiday tips were fresh -- to find out.
Despite the recession, respondents who did tip spent at about the same rate as in years past. The highest median tip was $35, for the category of cleaning people, with a few service providers receiving thank-yous as high as $500.
If you plan on offering gifts of thanks this holiday season, you might want to consider these tips from CR:
- Give cash equal to the value of one session or a week's wage to self-employed or lower-wage earners.
- Gift cards can be useful for tipping mail carriers. They aren't supposed to accept cash, but can accept gift cards valued at $20 or less that can't be exchanged for cash. Otherwise, you might want to avoid gift cards because of their fees.
- Be sure that food gifts won't trigger an allergic reaction or violate dietary restrictions.
- If you're keeping to a tight budget and can't afford to tip this year, consider writing a heartfelt note of thanks instead.
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Even those who don't like to shop are probably hitting the stores this month. Here's what to be on the lookout for and here's what to avoid.