By Jayne O'Donnell
That striped sweater or salt-and-pepper set turn you off? Return it online to Sears, J.C. Penney or Williams-Sonoma, and you may wait longer for a refund this year.
That's according to customer-service company StellaService, which had employees around the country do online "mystery shopping" to gauge changes in the speed of refunds.
StellaService says the timing of refunds got worse for 14 of 25 of the online retailers in the study. The speed of returns for Sears, Williams-Sonoma and J.C. Penney were among those that slowed the most since last year. While Zappos.com improved its time to process refunds by six days, Sears took 16.7 days longer.
Sears spokesman Brian Hanover says the timing was "clearly nowhere close to our standards or what we have definitively tracked for that metric over this time period." He notes StellaService names Sears.com one of the sites with the best customer service last year.
Williams-Sonoma and J.C. Penney did not respond to requests seeking comment.
StellaService CEO Jordy Leiser says it's usually inefficiency that holds up refunds. If retailers don't provide return labels, for example, products have to wind their way through the company.
There's better news for in-store shoppers - and returners. Most physical stores have kept their gift-return policies the same this year, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World, and some have actually eased them a bit.
Computers, digital cameras and other opened goods may come with restocking fees, shorter return periods or no refunds at all, Dworsky says. He says that's in part to discourage buyers from "renting" goods for the weekend and to help prevent return fraud.
Among the notable return policy changes that Consumer World found:
-- Target tightened its return policy again for computers (including tablets, netbooks and eReaders), cameras and other electronics such as game consoles and GPS units, which now must be returned in 30 days. Opened items may not get a refund or exchange at all.
-- Sears shortened its regular return policy for many product categories from 90 days to 60 days.
-- Best Buy extended its regular return period to 60 days for some Reward Zone members, but Best Buy notes the Premier Silver member - not the gift recipient - must make the return.
-- Toys R Us now accepts electronics and similar items for return even if the package was opened.