I’ve always believed that underneath every technological advancement lurks a negative side effect. It’s not necessarily critical, though, and can be as minor as getting used to doing something in a new way. As you gear up for holiday shopping, you need to know that many retailers have advanced their technology, and it may affect you in a negative way.

Many big retailers are now depending on software to help them reduce losses that occur when customers abuse store return policies. Here’s how it works: Every time you make a return, the clerk swipes your driver’s license. If the company thinks you’ve been making too many returns, you can be blacklisted without notice.

Recently, a loyal customer of the Express clothing chain returned several clothing items because once home she decided they were too similar to items she already had in her closet. She took them back for a refund and was shocked when the clerk reported her return had been declined. Reason? Her account showed “excessive” returns.

Retailers are able to do all kinds of surveillance because software is cheap and the technology is quite amazing. Already, KB Toys and Sports Authority have put excessive returns policies into practice, according to employees.

Although I could present a convincing argument for why such a practice is unfair to law-abiding consumers, that will not do you much good during the biggest shopping season of the year. Instead, let me suggest guidelines to keep in mind that will limit the need for returns — and when you cannot avoid it, make sure you are not blacklisted.

Many stores now give, in addition to a sales receipt, a “gift receipt” on request. Always ask for this. Gifts returned with a gift receipt are often treated in a different manner, making the return transaction quite easy.

Pay with cash whenever possible. This is also good for your financial future because you can’t create debt when you pay with cash. Cash sales are not tracked in the store’s computer and this, too, may make it easier to make a return or exchange, or to get a refund.

The prospect of returns being more carefully scrutinized behooves us to become more careful shoppers. It’s easy to get in a rush and, rather than try things on in the store, simply take several colors and sizes on approval, assured that all of it can be returned. Not a good idea. You sure don’t want to get stuck with all of those items to be disposed of at a garage sale for 10 cents on the dollar.

Above all, inquire about the store’s specific return policies before you make the purchase. If this matter of excessive returns is not addressed in the written policy, ask about that. Inquire how the store makes the determination of what is excessive.

No doubt, if this policy becomes a new industry standard, some retailer will break ranks and come up with a no-hassles return policy to set itself apart from the others.

I’ll be watching for that, and believe me, that retailer will get my attention. And, more than likely, my business, too.

Mary Hunt is the creator of The Cheapskate Monthly newsletter.

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