BBB offers holiday shopping tips

COVINGTON -- With Black Friday just around the corner, the The Better Business Bureau Serving Metro Atlanta, Athens & Northeast Georgia is offering tips to make this shopping season more pleasant.

Maintaining a budget during the holidays can be challenging, and overspending is just as common as overstuffing this time of year. According to the National Retail Federation, "American shoppers will spend just under $750 on average on their holiday purchases this year, with a record percentage of shoppers buying online."

Whether you plan to spend more or less than that average, the key is to set a budget and stick to it, according to a press release from BBB and Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions.

Tips for sticking to a holiday budget include:

-- Make a list -- Jot down the people to whom you plan to give a holiday gift.

-- Set a limit -- Look at your budget to see what amount you can afford to spend in total and then set limits for the amounts you will spend on each person.

-- Do research -- Many retailers are offering holiday deals, but it's always a good idea to comparison shop. Online prices may be better, but don't forget to factor in shipping costs.

-- Plan purchases -- Decide on what items you will buy online and which items you will purchase at local retailers. Go to www.bbb.org to check out BBB Business Reviews before you shop.

BBB and Clearpoint also offer a holiday planner calculator which compartmentalizes holiday budgets into categories like gifts, travel and food. The calculator can be accessed at http://video.bbb.org/clearpoint-holiday-tips/clearpoint-holiday-budgeting-calculator.html.

BBB also encourages consumers to be aware that in the state of Georgia, companies are allowed to establish their own policies regarding refunds, exchanges and store credits. In many firms, no such policies exist. No company is required by law to allow a customer the right to return or exchange merchandise no matter when it was purchased. The only exceptions to this rule are items that are misrepresented or defective. The laws in all states require a store to make good in such cases.

Current regulations do not require a store to post policies or put the information on the receipt. Therefore, it is your responsibility to find out each store's policies regarding refunds/exchanges/store credits before making a purchase. Policies for refunds and exchanges are voluntarily adopted to provide better customer service and not because a store is required by law.

To protect yourself while shopping for the holidays, follow these tips:

-- Save the receipt. Even if the store does not have a return policy, this information may be needed for warranty repair or to verify payment.

-- Find out each store's policy regarding refunds/exchanges/store credits before making a purchase. Do not assume you have the right to return items just because it is not posted or no one has said otherwise.

-- If refunds or exchanges are allowed, find out the following:

a. Is there a specific time period in which items may be returned?

b. Must the item be in the original packaging?

c. Will there be a restocking fee if you change your mind?

d. Can you return the item to another location of the store? This is especially important if the gift recipient is out of state.

e. Will the store give money back or will you be required to make an exchange or receive a store credit?

Online shoppers should also be careful this holiday season and consider what will happen if merchandise is delivered when they're not at home, BBB advises.

-- See if the store has the ability to allow you to track your purchases. If so, do so and often until you receive the merchandise. Contact the store immediately if not received when indicated.

-- None of the package delivery companies deliver on weekends. If you know you will not be at home, consider having your items shipped to your place of employment or to a trusted neighbor or friend.

-- Try and request a delivery time when you know you will be home if possible.

-- Ask the package delivery company to put your purchases somewhere they cannot be seen from the street, e.g. back porch, behind the back door, etc.

-- See if you can arrange to pick up your items at the package delivery company's place of operations.

-- Request a signature upon delivery. This makes it harder on you but also harder on those who would want to steal your merchandise.

-- When you do receive your merchandise examine it immediately. If you believe it's been tampered with, contact the store immediately.