How To Use The Returns Counter To 'Rent' Stuff From Retail Stores

How to Use the Returns Counter to 'Rent' Stuff From Retail Stores

Stores don't like it when you buy things that you plan to return, but let's be honest: most of us have at least considered it once or twice. If you're going to game the returns system, do it right. Here's how.

Photos by Clemens v. Vogelsang.

Generally, buying an item you intend to return is kind of a dick move. However, there are occasions where it could come in handy. Maybe you need clothes for a job interview but can't afford them until you get the job. Maybe you forgot your nice camera when you went on vacation. Or maybe you just don't know which router will work best in your home. If you only need to use something for a short time, "borrowing" something from a retail store can help without destroying your budget.

Prepare to Return Before You Buy

How to Use the Returns Counter to 'Rent' Stuff From Retail Stores

Before you get to the returns counter, you'll need to do a little prep work. You don't want to waste all your time standing in line, and you don't want unnecessary attention. Here are some things to consider before you start buying things you plan to return later:

  • Make sure you can spare the money. You may get your money back in the long run, but until you make it back to the returns counter, you won't have it. If you're going to buy a $1000 camera and return it two weeks later, you need to make sure you can pay your bills until then.
  • Always keep receipts. Some stores will allow you to return an item without a receipt, but don't count on it. Keep your receipts and make sure you have them when you do a return. If you're going to game the system, at least make it easy on the employees who are helping you.
  • Learn each store's return policy. Not every store's policy is the same. Most companies have a return policy you can read online. If they don't, you can ask someone at customer service. Find out the details ahead of time so you're prepared.
  • Keep all of your boxes and packaging. If you have the box your stuff came in, plus all the assorted junk included with it, you're less likely to get held up at the counter later. When you're buying stuff, make sure you take care to keep everything that's included. You can also use unboxing videos to help figure out how to repackage items properly, if you forgot how all that stuff fit in there in the first place.

Knowing what you're doing ahead of time helps make sure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. Keep in mind that stores don't really like returns. Not only have they lost a sale, but they often have to ship an item back to the company that made it to be checked and repackaged. Employees may be stressed from dealing with angry customers, and some sales employees may lose commissions if an item is returned. There are generally a dozen or so ways you can give someone a headache by returning something. Taking the time to make sure everything is in order and simple for them can make the process go a lot smoother.

Policies That Could Ruin Your Plan

Not all store return policies are equal. Some may have short return time frames, or only provide store credit in return. Say you want to go really evil and buy a few routers to see which one works in your home, then return the ones that don't. A store with a two week return policy and a 15% restocking fee for each is going to ruin your master plan. Knowing store policies helps. Here are some of the most common things to watch out for:

  • Short return windows. Many stores allow you to return an item within 30-90 days, but some stores may have a shorter window. Others may have exceptions for certain categories of items. Make sure you know how much time you'll have for each item before you buy.
  • Restocking fees. A restocking fee is usually charged to ensure that exactly this type of thing doesn't happen. Stores don't want you borrowing expensive gadgets for a month only to bring them back for a full refund, so they will charge 15% of the price to dissuade that. Check before you buy so you're not wasting money (or accept the charge as a rental fee and live with it).
  • Exchanges or store credit only policies. Some stores may have an explicit policy that only allows for exchanges or store credit when you're returning an item. Make sure you know ahead of time that a store will pay you back in actual money, so you're not blind-sided.
  • Exceptions for certain items. Not all items can be returned, or may have certain conditions. For example, Blu-Ray discs, video games, or some electronics can't be returned once their plastic wrap has been taken off (for obvious reasons). Make sure you know about these exceptions before buying.

You might also find that major retailers have more accommodating return policies than smaller local shops. This is precisely because they can afford to do it. Try to keep that in mind as you look for a store to "rent" from. If a place you visit is already struggling to make ends meet, don't take advantage of their return policy. Even if they technically allow it, it's kind of dickish to take advantage of a smaller store.

The Stores With the Best Return Policies

How to Use the Returns Counter to 'Rent' Stuff From Retail Stores

To save you the trouble of checking every store for the last section, here are a few nationwide store chains that have pretty great return policies to begin with. Keep in mind, these can vary by location, so it may be worth double-checking a store in your local area. Hopefully this can still get you in the ballpark, though:

  • Big W: As long as you have your receipt, you can return most items to Big W. The exception are Big W House brand items, for which they will offer you an exchange, repair or Returns Card even without a receipt. How long you have to return an item varies from product to product, so it's better to go sooner rather than later. Unofficially, most stores tend to make pretty generous exceptions, rather than deal with upset customers.
  • Target: Target has a pretty stellar return policy, allowing virtually any item to be returned within 28 days. However, the store does require proof of purchase if you want a refund. Similarly to Big W, if you can't present proof of purchase you'll get a coupon if it's a Target brand item, otherwise they won't do the exchange at all.
  • Myer: Myer's return policy is stricter. If you have a receipt they will offer to exchange or refund an item within 30 days subject to some exclusions, provided it is unused and in it's original packaging. If you can't provide a receipt or it is past 30 days Myer may still provide an exchange or refund, but it is up to their discretion (so aim for the cheerier looking salesperson). Myer may also extends it's 30 day time period to account for gift-giving periods like Christmas, in case you hate that sweater your mum got you.

These are the general policies, but again, there are always exceptions. The caveat for movies and video games out of their plastic wrap, for example, will almost always result in a store credit at best. Be sure to check for your specific item before hitting up a store. However, these are a few of the best.

The Golden Rules For Every Store

Returning a lot of stuff isn't just about knowing the rules, of course. Keep in mind that you're still dealing with real people and real businesses. By definition, the businesses you're dealing with do not want to be rental stores. They may turn a blind eye to the occasional return, but they're probably going to start drawing lines if you return everything you buy. Here are a few golden rules to pull this off without being a jerk.

  • Be efficient. At the checkout counter, don't waste time. Have your receipts out and ready to go. Don't bring a shopping cart full of stuff to return. Don't make several trips to a store each week. Keep the number of times you do this to a minimum. The less time you can spend in the returns line, the better for everyone involved.
  • Don't be a jerk. While what you're doing may not technically be against any rules, you know you're gaming the system. Don't yell at clerks to get your way. Don't fight with a manager if they turn down your return. Don't get impatient if a returns line is long. You chose to buy something you didn't plan to keep. It's up to you to deal with the fallout.
  • Expect to keep everything you buy. Despite your best efforts, there may be a time when you just have to keep something. You misread the return policy. You waited too long to bring it back. You've done this five times in a week and it's getting to be too much. Whatever the reason, a store can choose not to honour your return. Be prepared for that. Don't blow through your budget on things you can't afford to keep if there's even a slight chance you can't return it. And there's always a slight chance. If the worst happens, know how to sell your stuff.

If you do nothing else in this guide, but follow these rules, you'll probably be ok. Most major retailers don't want to spend a ton of time fighting over returns. Small stores have more to lose, but big box retailers don't care about that one lost sale. They care about the customer. As long as you don't act like a huge jerk, you can probably get away with this every once in a while.

Lifehacker's Evil Week highlights the dark side of life hacking. How you use that knowledge is up to you.


    Note: This is an American article. Don't take any advice in this article as anything but a suggestion in Australia.

    The two conditions I love.
    "Original Resaleable Condition", yea you washed it, so what? I actually had a woman try and argue with me that she would happily pay full price for a blender someone had used once, not liked, washed (poorly), and returned. We did not accept her return.

    "Managers discretion" Want to return something worth $1000? Yea, we're going to open it and check that it hasn't been used. We're under no obligation to return your money if the product is not unfit for purpose or faulty, ACCC will happily back us up over the helpline too. If you're lucky, we're in a good mood, and you bought something made by a company that is extremely easy for us to get return authorities from, you might be in luck. Many companies however are awful to deal with as a retailer, even though they might be very good to deal with as a customer.

    Don't lie to us. Did you buy something, get it out of the box, realise it wasn't what you wanted and pack it straight back up? Don't try telling us it was never opened. We can tell that it has new stickytape on the box, and we can tell it wasn't packed the same way as the other 20 or so of that item we've opened before and half the packaging is missing.

    Also if you're a jerk, I'll probably try my hardest to be the "technically" police and not give you your money back. I've definitely gone out of my way for people who are genuinely nice, but jerks get nothing, if you escalate being a jerk enough, you might even get banned from the store.

    Last edited 18/11/15 8:09 am

      Thankyou for not giving in to jerks. I was reading some retail horror stores (from America) and about 90% of them said the manager gave refunds and free gift cards to people that were jerks to "keep the customer happy".

      Returns are truly different in the States though - and super easy. Last time we visited my wife went clothes shopping which I was not interested in. She bought 10 shirts for me, I picked the 5 I liked most and the others went back. We also stupidly went to Walmart on black Friday. That was an experience. I grabbed all the $7-$2 Blu Rays I was interested in during the crazy rush. Got back to the house, checked online which ones were region free, returned the rest. No problem.

      I've even heard of stores accepting stuff that they don't even sell. And just occasionally, you can return something and it happens to be on sale. They will take it back and give you the difference.

    Doesn't seem to be any consideration in this article of the store's legal obligations (yes I know that they mainly apply to returning faulty items but...) and more importantly how a lot of stores aren't even aware of what their responsibilities are and tell customers that they can't return something because ... when they are actually not allowed to.

    Would love to see an article that actually sets out what your rights actually are about returning items - faulty or not.

      Oh give a good run down on the laws and the stores, and your, responsibilities regarding returns and you can download a pdf with the info on at

    At one of the grocery chains I worked for, we were basically told to provide a refund to anyone who requested for one. All they had to say was that there were 'unhappy' with the product.

    Once I had a women ask for a refund for a packet of Parmesan cheese. The receipt was dated 2 weeks prior. There was 30% of the product left in the pack. And she claimed she was not happy with the product because it went mouldy. I brought this to the attention of my superior, I still had to provide the refund.

    It makes my furious, as these actions cause the the product sale price to go up.

    EB Games's returns policy is really good for this. Any game can be returned for a full refund within a week of purchase. Sales staff don't seem to mind at all, even when I'm open about the fact that I'm only buying the latest COD game to smash the campaign in a weekend and bring it back on Monday.

    There's a law here that says you have 14 days to notify the store of your intent to return the item and another 14 to actually do it. Only for internet purchases but can still easily be abused.

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