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Results vary when couponers return a purchase - Jill Cataldo

Q: "Suppose you buy an item for $5 and use a 50-cent coupon. If, for some reason, you have to return the item, are you entitled to $5 or $4.50?"

A: Excellent question! Before I dig into this one, understand that the answer to this question can vary by store. There are two possible scenarios.

You return the item. The store's employee looks at your receipt, notes that you actually paid $4.50 for the item and refunds $4.50 to you.

Or, when you return the item, the store's employee looks at your receipt and refunds you the full $5.

Now, it's possible to argue that both scenarios are correct. But from a shopper's perspective, the second scenario is actually the right one, and here's why. Keep in mind that manufacturer coupons function as cash. They are cash to shoppers and they are cash to the stores where we redeem them, since the store will be reimbursed for the coupon's value.

In the second scenario, the store keeps your 50-cent coupon and, eventually, gets reimbursed for it. Since the store cannot give the coupon itself back to you, assuming it's already been sent on for redemption, they can, instead, refund the coupon's value to you, giving you the full $5 purchase price of your item back in cash.

In the first scenario, where the store refunds you $4.50 and keeps the coupon, the store actually comes out 50 cents ahead. You returned your item, but they still redeem the coupon you used to purchase the item. The item returns to the store's inventory and they still profit 50 cents on the transaction.

A store's individual policy will dictate how it handles situations like this. Consider, too, that depending on how quickly you returned the item (perhaps it's the same day as the purchase), you also may be able to get your coupon back as part of the return. In that case, you would receive your $4.50 in cash plus your 50-cent coupon.

Q: "A friend told me recently that when I return food to the store, the store doesn't sell it again; the items are thrown away. Is this true? It makes me think twice about returning items I may have purchased too much of."

A: At many stores this is, indeed, true. It's unfortunate to think of food going to waste, but returned food items represent a liability for the store. Store personnel don't know what you did with the food while it was out of the store. With a refrigerated or frozen item, they have no way of knowing if it was kept out at the proper temperature.

If you decide to return a new, sealed food item for a refund, the best time to do it is when you're still in the store. Many stores will quickly restock the item if it hasn't left the building.

It's a good rule of thumb not to return food items once they've gone home with you. Of course, if you are not satisfied with a product and the store has a money-back satisfaction guarantee, you are certainly entitled to return it.

But, will you get reimbursed for the coupon you used to buy the product? It's up to the store.