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Amazon's return process decoded: How to send stuff back the fast, easy and (usually) free way

Amazon's many return shipping options can get confusing fast. Follow these tips to send back Amazon purchases without wasting time or money.

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Don't spend a single penny returning your unwanted Amazon package -- not even on gas.

Angela Lang/CNET

Amazon built its reputation by making online shopping simple and easy, but the same cannot be said about Amazon's return process. Although Amazon's plethora of return options does give you more choices when returning purchases, the company also complicates the process. You might be tempted to click the first return shipping method Amazon offers you, but that might not be the most convenient method in the end.

That's because Amazon does its best to bury the easiest, most convenient (and usually free) return methods beneath costlier or more time-consuming options. 

Amazon's default return shipping services might very well be the most convenient for you, if, for example, you live near a Kohl's, all of which now accept Amazon returns (and are known to hand out Kohl's coupons while you're there). But if not, accidentally clicking that option just adds one more chore to your list.

If you'd rather return items to Amazon the same way you ordered them – without ever having to trek beyond your own front door – here's the quick, easy and (oftentimes) free way to send stuff back to Amazon.

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Sure, you could take your Amazon return to your closest Kohl's store, but why?

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Give a reason, not an excuse

The first thing Amazon will ask after you start the return process is the reason for your return. It's important to be as honest and precise here as possible. Amazon, as well as Amazon's third-party sellers, will want to resell merchandise in good working order (like Amazon does through Amazon Warehouse Deals) so your items will be checked against your return reason. 

But not only can misclassifying a return result in negative repercussions to your Amazon account (the company has been known to ban shoppers who misuse the return process), you also might end up paying for return shipping when you didn't need to.

For example, if you select "no longer needed" by default, you may be charged for the return. If your reason for return is actually more specific, you may not.

Here're all the various return reasons Amazon gives you to choose from as well as a description of exactly what they mean:

  • No longer needed: You changed your mind and don't want the item any more.
  • Bought by mistake: You accidentally hit Buy it Now or forgot to delete an item from your cart before checking out.
  • Better price available: You find the same thing at, say, Walmart for less than what you paid for it at Amazon.
  • Inaccurate website description: Example: The photo shows a deep royal blue, but the item is a light sky blue. Similar to but different from "Wrong item was sent" (see below).
  • Item defective or doesn't work: Could be that it's broken or simply doesn't do what it's designed to do (for example, a can opener that spins up but doesn't cut the lid off).
  • Product damaged, but shipping box OK: The box isn't dented, cut or scratched, but the item inside has cosmetic or mechanical damage.
  • Item arrived too late: The item was delivered past the guaranteed delivery and missed, for example, a birthday.
  • Missing or broken parts: Similar to "Item was defective or doesn't work" but applies not to the item itself but the attachments, etc. that come with it.
  • Product and shipping box both damaged: Somewhere between being boxed up and arriving at your door, the package was mishandled, and the product arrives broken.
  • Wrong item was sent: If you received a completely different item, not just that the size, shape or color wasn't what you selected (see "Inaccurate website description").
  • Received extra item I didn't buy: Something extra got packaged with your order, and you feel obliged to return it.
  • Didn't approve purchase: Someone, either in your family (a child, a spouse) or a friend (say, one on whose computer you logged into Amazon and forgot to log out) ordered something and you got charged.
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Free UPS pickup is our favorite option for Amazon returns.

Angela Lang/CNET

Tell Amazon where to send your refund

Next you'll have to choose how you want your money back. The quickest way is to receive a credit to your Amazon account, which Amazon will issue as soon as UPS scans your return into its system. But then you're stuck spending the money at Amazon.

You can also have the funds put back on your debit or credit card. But even though Amazon will issue the refund as soon as UPS takes possession of your return package, it still could take another three to five business days to show up in your account. 

Whichever way you go, though, you'll still need to decide exactly how you want to send the item back.

Don't merely accept the default return shipping method

When Amazon asks you to select a return shipping method, Kohl's Dropoff will almost always be the default preselected option, but it's not always the one you want (unless you need to go to Kohl's anyway). 

To get to the UPS Pickup option, you'll have to scroll down and possibly even click on a link that reads something like 2 other return options.

When you finally see the option for UPS Pickup, it should also show the cost as $0.00 (unless you're returning for one of the few reasons Amazon charges for, in which case Amazon will deduct about $6 from your refund). Tap or click UPS Pickup then select Confirm Your Return.

Fun fact: Merchandise ordered through Amazon's digital assistant Alexa comes with free returns regardless of the reason.

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All that's left is packing everything up and setting it out

Follow whatever instructions Amazon gives you, which will probably just be to print out a packing slip and place it in the package with your return. 

Tape up the box good and tight -- and even tape over the return label so it won't get damaged -- then put the package near your front door so you don't forget to set it out on the next business day. 

You might even want to set a reminder on your phone or with Alexa or Google Assistant so you don't forget.

If you do happen to forget to leave your return outside for UPS, in the best case scenario UPS will leave a note and attempt pickup two more times. Worst case, the UPS driver will leave a prepaid mailing label that you'll have to apply to the package yourself, then you'll have to cart the thing to the nearest UPS Store or UPS Dropoff location.

Good luck, and many happy returns.