Consumer Direct, a government-backed advice service set up in conjunction with Trading Standards, says too few people know their rights. Its research shows that 70 per cent of shoppers do not realise they have no legal right to redress if they change their minds about a purchase or simply do not want a particular present.
The organisation's spokeswoman Carol Brady says the rules are the same on unwanted gifts and sales goods. "Although many shops allow you to take back goods that you've had second thoughts about, they do this as a goodwill gesture," she says. "There's no legal requirement for them to do it."
The good news is that shops are generally prepared to be flexible about Christmas gifts. A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium says: "Many retailers will go that extra mile and do what they can to accommodate requests after Christmas for refunds on unwanted goods."
Researchers from the consumer group Which? say 15 of 16 major retailers they have contacted are willing to offer refunds on unwanted Christmas presents. However, there are limits to their flexibility.
Some shops have time limits within which gifts must be returned. This year, Argos is giving people until 11 January to return unwanted presents, for example, while the deadline at Debenhams is 22 January. Marks & Spencer is the most generous, offering refunds up to 90 days after the purchase date of the gift.
To secure a refund, you will almost certainly need a receipt - tricky if you don't want to offend whoever gave you the gift. If the present was bought on plastic, retailers generally want to put the refund back on the purchase card, which means you'll have to speak to the giver.
Retailers' attitudes vary - even without a receipt, John Lewis and M&S are two shops that may still be prepared to give you a refund if the present can be resold. At other retailers, you may have to accept an exchange, or vouchers to spend another time, if you can't get the refund you want.
After Christmas, retailers tend to take a harder line on shoppers who change their mind about goods bought in a sale. Although you are more likely to have a receipt, you still may not receive a refund. And often the cash refund you'll get will be the current price of the item, rather than what you originally paid for it. So if something has been reduced further in price since the sale began, you could end up out of pocket.
Which? advisers say that it is always worth arguing your case, even if you end up having to settle for a compromise. "Be polite and keep your cool," a spokesman suggests. "And be flexible about what you'll accept by way of exchange."
Your position is much stronger if there's something wrong with an item. "Your rights are exactly the same during the sales as at any other time," adds Brady. "If you've bought goods that turn out to be damaged or faulty, you are entitled to a replacement, repair or refund."
There are several grounds for complaint. An item must not have any faults, for example, and it must be up to doing the job that it is supposed to do. A waterproof coat, say, must keep the rain out. Goods must also be durable - if something wears out well ahead of when you might reasonably expect it to, you can make a complaint.
Don't let retailers off the hook. If goods are faulty, you don't need a receipt - any proof of purchase, such as a bank statement, will do. And it is almost always the retailer's responsibility to resolve the situation, rather than the manufacturer's, as the shop may claim.
Consumer Direct (0845 404 0506, www.consumerdirect.gov.uk) can offer further advice.
Back down the line
* Goods bought online are usually governed by the "Distance Selling" regulations, which may be useful to people who want to claim a refund.
* You can send back goods within seven days of purchase for any reason and get a full refund, though you may have to cover the cost of postage. * The seven-day cooling off period is obviously over for Christmas presents, but may still help people who have bought online goods in the January sales.
* Note that the Distance Selling regulations do not apply to goods bought on auction sites such as eBay. However, they do cover goods bought over the telephone or by mail order.Reuse content