Whether you buy your holiday gifts a bit at a time or launch into a mad dash in the final hours, most of the “basics” stay the same when it comes to buying gifts that will provide you and your recipients with the most joy and least hassle. Here are 10 tips from the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection that are essential for savvy shoppers:
Before shopping, start off with a list of what you’re hoping to buy – you can make changes as you go along if needed, but at least set a basic category of gift and an estimated dollar amount for everyone on your list – an amount you can comfortably spend or repay.
1. CONSIDER LAY-A-WAY: Layaway can be helpful to reduce credit spending, but watch for hidden fees. Typically, lay-a-way allows you to put merchandise aside now, and delay full payment until it’s time to pick up the merchandise, usually within 30 days. Connecticut stores must give you a lay-a-way statement that includes the amount of your deposit, length of time the items will be held, total purchase price, a description of each item, and a notice of cancellation policy. Pay attention to the terms or you could forfeit your deposit.
2. EXPLORE PRICE MATCHING: Stores often promise to match their competitor’s advertised price, and on smaller items like games, toys, and name-brand clothing, these can be a timesaver. But for electronics, entertainment systems and appliances, you may have difficulty finding the exact same model in competing stores, so price matching won’t apply. Or you may find that the terms of sale at one store, such as delivery charges and financing, more than compensate for a slightly higher cost. If you see an ad for the exact same item at a lower price, check all the conditions in the ad before you shop. Call ahead to save time and energy.
3. WHEN SHOPPING ONLINE: Online shopping provides lots of anonymity for scammers, and it’s difficult for enforcement authorities to help you should something go wrong. Use only well-known online retailers. Also look for privacy and security seals, which indicate that their security and privacy measures have been verified. Read and understand all the terms, including delivery date, return policy, and warranties.
4. WHEN SHOPPING BY MAIL: This is not the best time to use a new catalog from an unknown retailer! Use tried and true retailers for holiday shopping by mail. Otherwise, you may not get what you ordered, may not get it in time, or worse, may not get it at all. Read all the terms, including delivery date, return policy, and warranties.
5. GIVING GIFT CARDS: Not all gift cards are the same and who is selling the card makes a difference as to the protection you may have. Make sure to understand which protections are available to you when you buy the cards.
Under State law, gift cards sold in Connecticut do not expire, even if an expiration date is printed on the card, nor can they accrue inactivity fees or penalties if not used by a certain date. Local store and restaurant cards usually cost nothing to buy, have no monthly fees, and often allow the user to carry over a balance if not used all at once. However, if the issuing company goes out of business or declares bankruptcy you may lose up to the entire value of the gift card.
In Connecticut and elsewhere, federal law covers gift cards offered by federally chartered financial institutions, including most banks and certain malls. These cards can be purchased nearly anywhere, cost a few dollars to buy, and often have monthly fees attached after the first year. Be sure to read all the disclosures when buying a gift card, and encourage all gift card recipients to use their cards promptly! More details are available on the Federal Reserve’s website.
6. UNDERSTAND REFUNDS: The most frequent shopping complaint is one that can be easily avoided. In Connecticut, retailers can impose any refund and exchange policy they wish, but it must be conspicuously posted at the store entrance, where the items are displayed for sale, or at the checkout counter. Look for it before you buy and keep all sales receipts! If there is no posted policy, you have seven (7) days to return almost any new, unused item, with its original packaging and the sales receipt. Exceptions include custom-ordered or custom-made items, plants, clearance, “as-is” or anything otherwise prohibited by law.
7. CHECK HOLIDAY RETURN POLICIES: Chances are that you or someone you buy for will need to return an item after the holidays. Some stores offer extended holiday return policies. Look for the return policy sign whenever and where ever you shop during the holidays. If the policy isn’t printed on your receipt or on a store flyer, get it in writing, preferably from the manager. This is particularly important for big ticket items.
8. ABOUT DEFECTIVE MERCHANDISE: If an item you buy is defective, you have the right to return the item for a replacement or a refund. If the new hairdryer won’t heat up, or the new toaster won’t toast, you should return the item for a replacement or a refund. You’re protected under the implied warranty of merchantability law, which states that a new consumer product must do what it is supposed to do. According to the law, merchant means seller; so it’s the seller (retailer) – not the manufacturer – that is responsible for making things right. Speak to the manager if you need to.
9. WATCH RE-STOCKING FEES: Some stores charge you if you return an item. They are allowed to do it, provided they post a notice of their restocking fees in a conspicuous place in the store.
10. AVOID EXTENDED WARRANTIES: These are not warranties at all. A warranty is something you get free with the product. These are service contracts that you pay for. Store salespeople are encouraged to sell these plans; the profit margin is often greater than that for the merchandise. Usually not recommended, since service contracts often overlap the warranty period that comes with the product (when most repair problems occur). Many contracts are full of loopholes, and some are so expensive that they offset the cost of repairing or replacing the item.
With these basic shopping points in mind, you’re ready to head to the stores. Happy Holidays!
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