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EXPLAINED: The rules around returning Christmas gifts in Germany

Discarded wrapping paper after Christmas
Discarded wrapping paper lies next to a Christmas tree. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand
Now that Christmas is over, you may be wondering how to deal with some of the not-so-perfect gifts you got - or those you bought for other people. If you need to return or exchange something, here's what you need to know about your rights in Germany.

Everybody loves exchanging gifts at Christmas, but even the most lovely of festive rituals can be a bit of a minefield. You may have been given some new clothes in a size too small (or at least too small for the post-Christmas dinner version of you) or even find yourself getting the same thing from two different people.

That’s why the week after Christmas is often time for yet another seasonal ritual: attempting to return or exchange unwanted gifts at the shops.

Unfortunately, trying to exercise your consumer rights isn’t always that easy – and a lot depends on the retailer having customer-friendly policies in place. 

Here are some common questions and tips for navigating the complex territory of German consumer rights.

Do I have an automatic right to exchange items? 

If the product doesn’t have any defects and comes to you as described, there’s unfortunately no automatic right to return it. In Germany, the general principle is: if you bought it, you bought it. Don’t think those jeans suit you as much as you thought they would? Not sure about the colour of your new iPhone case? According to consumer rights laws, those aren’t valid reasons for demanding a refund or exchange.

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Before you give up hope or decide to go on a crash diet though, you should be aware that a lot of retailers do allow you to exchange unwanted items as a gesture of goodwill.

If they do this, they’ll generally be entitled to set their own conditions, so these will vary from vendor to vendor. In most cases, the item will have to be in perfect condition and returned within a few weeks or a month of the purchase. They may also insist on giving you store credit rather than your money back.  

Tip: Retailers normally make a note of their return policies on the receipt, so be sure to check what they are before trying to return the item. 

READ ALSO: Why a German court decision means you could be entitled to compensation from your bank

What if I bought the gift online – or from a catalogue? 

If this is the case, there’s slightly better news. If you didn’t purchase the item in person, but rather online, over the phone or from a catalogue, the purchase is categorised as a ‘distance contract’, which means you generally have two weeks to return the item. This two-week period starts from the date you receive the item, and you should get a full refund after sending it back. 

Online shopping
A woman enters her credit card details while shopping online. Products purchased on the internet can be returned for any reason up to two weeks after purchasing. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christin Klose

It’s worth noting, however, that this law only applies to commercial vendors like Amazon or an online shop. Someone who sells something privately on an online marketplace like Ebay has no obligation to take the item back – though they may be willing to if you ask nicely!

In addition, some items like fresh food and custom, hand-made products like made-to-measure suits are exempt from ‘distance contract’ rules, so you may not be able to send these back even if they were purchased online. 

Tip: Try to keep the items you receive in mint condition if you’re planning to send them back. Some items, like DVDs, can’t be sent back if the seal on the packaging has been broken.

READ ALSO: 8 quirks that foreigners will pick up while living in Germany

Am I entitled to a refund if my item’s defective?

If something’s wrong with the item when you get it, you have a full two years to return the item. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a refund, though, since vendors can opt to repair it or replace it with a non-defective item instead. 

If you leave it more than six months, things can get a little tricky, since you’ll have to prove that the item was faulty when you got it – even if the defect wasn’t obvious to start with. The good news is that, for items bought in 2022, this six-month period is set to be doubled, so you’ll have a full year to return a faulty item without having to prove that it was defective when you first received it. 

For Christmas gifts bought this year, however, the deadline is still six months. 

Tip: If you spot an issue with your gift, it’s best to return it as soon as you can. 

Who do I have to contact if I want to exchange or return something? 

Sometimes it can be hard to know whether to contact the manufacturer or the seller about an unwanted or faulty item – and vendors may try and pass you over to somebody else. If this happens, it’s important to know that the seller is almost always responsible for dealing with issues related to products they’ve sold.

Jeans shop
A man speaks to a shop assistant in a clothes shop in Baden-Württemberg. The seller should always be your first port of call if you want to return something. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

The only exception is if the manufacturer may offer a separate warranty that lasts longer than the warranty offered by the seller, for example a three-year warranty on electronic goods. In this case, you may need to refer to them, but it’s probably worth contacting the seller first as they may be able to act as a go-between. 

Tip: Always contact the seller as a first port of call. 

What if the gift was reduced or in the sales? 

If you’ve decided to save a few cents by buying some gifts in the sales this year (don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone) then you’ll be pleased to know that you haven’t forfeited any of your consumer rights. In general, the same rules apply to discounted items as they do to full price items, so you’re entitled to return it anytime within two years if it’s faulty. 

As always, there are some exceptions. If the item was reduced because it had a defect, and you were made aware of the defect before you bought it, you’re unlikely to be entitled to a refund. 

Tip: When buying reduced items, always check whether the seller has indicated that it is defective before purchasing as this could affect your rights. 

And what about gift vouchers? 

Ah, gift vouchers – the ultimate ‘risk free’ option. Who doesn’t like picking a gift for themselves in the January sales, or even later in the year? And the best part is, you don’t have to deal with the rigamarole of returning anything in the New Year. 

Gift voucher
A gift voucher can be an ideal risk free gift – as long as you pay attention to the expiry date. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Swen Pförtner

If you do have some vouchers to use, however, it’s important to make sure you know how long they’re valid for. Generally, vendors can set their own expiry date, though legally it shouldn’t be less than one year. If there’s no sign of an expiry date on the voucher or any indication otherwise, most vouchers should be valid for three years, so you have plenty of time to consider what to spend it on. 

Unfortunately, there’s no obligation for a vendor to exchange the voucher for cash if you decide you don’t want to spend it at that shop, though. 

Tip: Make a note of the expiry date on any vouchers you’re given, and be sure to spend them within the allotted time.

READ ALSO: Has it just got easier to end credit agreements in Germany?


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