Getting a retailer to accept electronics returns can quickly develop into a saga. Know your rights! Here are some tips to help you navigate the tricky world of returns, exchanges, and warranties.

An HDTV is not a sweater - a fact that retailers will make very clear if you try to return your new flat screen. If the digital cameras (or other tech gear) you got from your mum, your cousin, or your best friend this holiday season must head back to the store, you need to be prepared before you get there.

Consistently, retailers maintain separate return policies for electronics. "We're talking [about] some higher-end items that retailers want to move quickly," says Better Business Bureau spokesperson Steve Cox.

"They don't want to be caught with old stock."

And within certain boundaries retailers are legally allowed to set any return policies they want, as long as those policies are publicly posted.

Here is our best advice to help you avoid headaches and high blood pressure at the customer-service counter. And if all else fails, visit the PC Advisor Consumerwatch forum.

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Getting a retailer to accept electronics returns can quickly develop into a saga. Know your rights! Here are some tips to help you navigate the tricky world of returns, exchanges, and warranties.

Do you really want to take the item back?

Before you go to the shop, consider why you are returning an item. Could your dissatisfaction be a result of your setting up the gizmo improperly? Think about paying for some professional assistance before giving up on your brand-new home-entertainment system.

Many returns of home-entertainment systems and computers to the big consumer-electronics chains follow failed attempts to install or configure the devices.

Often, professional services such as Comet on Call can get the gadgets working correctly. Large stores such as PC World will often provide a home setup service. And nerds-on-call don't necessarily need to come out to your house to help. Check your local directory for more home help.

Act fast!

Okay, so geeks in cars can't help you dispose of three extra digital cameras. The key to a quick and easy return is simple: don't dawdle.

For electronics returns, stores generally give you less time - and make you jump through more hoops - than they do for other items. The good news is that most retailers have Christmas return policies that allow some wiggle room - but not much. So hurry.

Don't open anything

Stores typically have several requirements for handing over a full refund. The first, and most important, is that the box be sealed.

If the box is open, the retailer will need to test the gadget to ensure it's in full working order - which means that accepting your return will cost the company time and money. Unfortunately, that in turn means it will cost you money too.

If you have opened the box, be certain it's full before heading to the store. "Make sure you bring everything back in. If there are any accessories missing, a wire or anything, you'll probably need to go back home to get it," says Jeff Dudash of US retailer Best Buy. "I've had to do that before."

Some stores will deduct the cost of each missing item from your refund. For exchanges, some retailers will simply replace what you've brought (a manual for a manual, a cable for a cable, etc.), so you're on your own for whatever piece you've left behind.

NEXT PAGE: receipt, receipt, receipt. And online shopping > >

Getting a retailer to accept electronics returns can quickly develop into a saga. Know your rights! Here are some tips to help you navigate the tricky world of returns, exchanges, and warranties.

Save your receipt

Yes, this one is a big "well yeah". Don't have a receipt? No return for you. But it's a problem. According to people in the electronics retail trade it's astounding how many folks don't keep receipts.

But then, every year literally billions of pounds are lost in return fraud. Retailers don't want you to buy something, use it over Christmas, and then bring it back. So get a receipt and hang on it.

If you received the gadget as a gift or you accidentally misplaced the receipt, you're not completely out of luck. Amazon, for example, will issue a gift certificate rather than a refund. If you call the site's customer service number, the representative will ask you a few questions to identify the original order (and they promise not to tell on you for returning a gift).

If you bought the product for yourself, a retailer may be able to look up your credit card number in its computer to locate the sale and facilitate a return.

If you bought the item online

Some retailers have the same policies for online returns as they do for in-store returns, but others don't. But in some ways you are better off returning online goods - under UK distance selling regulations you have a seven-day cooling off period during which you can return goods, no questions asked.

As your unwanted item is likely to be a gift bought more than seven days before you got it... well, this probably doesn't help you over much. So, in the same way as if you were shopping in store, you need to check the online store's returns policy. By law this has to be displayed.

Whether the store charges you for postage or even insurance costs of returning the item is, we're afraid, very much up to them. But help yourself by following all our other tips, and reading the store's returns policy before you make the call.

NEXT PAGE: regular returners and broken products > >

Getting a retailer to accept electronics returns can quickly develop into a saga. Know your rights! Here are some tips to help you navigate the tricky world of returns, exchanges, and warranties.

Don't be a regular returner

Believe it or not, companies exist that help retailers track your return habits. The purpose of such monitoring is to reduce fraud, but even if you're an honest person who simply has difficulty making decisions, frequent returns can get you in trouble. Retailers may simply refuse to accept your return or permit an exchange.

If your attempt to return a gadget has been denied because you make frequent returns or exchanges, find out which company the retailer uses to monitor returns, and protest directly to it.

What if the product is busted?

No retailer wants to sell you damaged goods. If you open the box and your product doesn't work, the store that sold it to you should take it back. That said, the retailer is not likely to give you a refund; rather, it will most likely require you to exchange the item for a functioning unit.

"Any type of damaged product can be exchanged for that same product," says Best Buy's Dudash. He recommends that customers check with the store before exercising the manufacturer's warranty: "Come back to the store first - it's more convenient."

When to contact the manufacturer

If you've used the item extensively or waited several months to take it back, however, returning the item to the retailer will not be an option. At that point, it's time to check your manufacturer's warranty.

Almost all new gadgets come with limited warranties, but their coverage varies widely. Sony, for example, guarantees its LCD colour TVs for parts and labour for up to one year after purchase. The company's portable audio players, on the other hand, are guaranteed for parts and labour for only up to 90 days after purchase. Don't fret if you've misplaced your warranty card, though: many manufacturers make product warranties available online for download in PDF form.

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Getting a retailer to accept electronics returns can quickly develop into a saga. Know your rights! Here are some tips to help you navigate the tricky world of returns, exchanges, and warranties.

If worst comes to worst, sell it

Just can't get the retailer to take the product back? No worries! Selling open-box items is a big business on eBay. In fact, eBay sellers even publish guides on how to buy open-box products. If you've exhausted all of your options and you just want to get rid of your gadget, consider putting it up on a site such as Amazon.co.uk or eBay. Someone out there is ready to buy one of your three brand-new digital cameras.

If you believe the merchant treated you unfairly

Unfortunately, you will not always be happy with the return process. If you think a retailer acted irresponsibly - or criminally - you can turn to other folks for assistance. Report poor business practices to your local Trading Standards office. If that doesn't work, look for assistance in the PC Advisor Consumerwatch forum. Though we can't troubleshoot every problem that comes along, we can try to help