A woman walked into Martha Warder's Reston toy shop last week with an expensive computer game in her hand and one thing on her mind: to return the game and receive credit on her charge card.

The problem: Warder, owner of Neat Stuff for Kids, doesn't give charge card credits. At least not usually. But the woman persisted.

"Finally, it became uncomfortable," Warder said. The woman told her, "if I didn't take it back she was just going to leave it on my counter and leave and tell her credit card company not to honor" the charge.

So Warder relented. "It's a fine line. ... I want to protect myself ... but we don't want to anger our public."

The dispute is typical of situations in which small retailers find themselves right after Christmas or anytime a customer wants to return a purchase. Lacking the cash flow or inventory volume of major department stores such as Nordstrom or Woodward & Lothrop, small retailers often limit their return policies to store credits or exchanges. Sometimes, they get even stricter, requiring that a purchase be returned within seven days, complete with receipt and store tags.

By contrast, Nordstrom accepts its merchandise back almost with no questions asked, said Carol Ongstad, a Washington area spokeswoman for the chain. The Seattle-based chain, which prides itself on quality service, has stores at Tysons Corner Center and Pentagon City mall. It does not require receipts and provides cash, credit or exchanges, "whatever is most helpful to the customer ... We have the attitude that our customers are honest," Ongstad said.

Small retailers say they have the same attitude, but cannot absorb the losses that a large store can. They add that most of the time, customers accept that. But other times, returns present small retailers with a choice. Do they stand firm and risk losing someone's business, or do they accept a return and risk taking a loss?

The answer is usually to wing it.

"If you had a coat {to exchange}, and if it was snowing when you walked in here and there was snow on the coat I don't think I would exchange it," said Liam Maguire, owner of Emerald Aisle, a Union Station boutique specializing in imports from Ireland.

Yet most of the time, Maguire said he will happily take back a store purchase and order a replacement from Ireland on the spot. He tries to be flexible about the amount of time a customer can keep an item before returning it, within reason.

"One time someone brought in a sweater they bought two years ago," Maguire recalled. "After two years, I thought that was the limit."

Or, as Darryl Banks, manager of the clothing and gift store Ida's Idea on Georgia Avenue NW put it, "you don't have a whole lot of freedom" to haggle with customers over returns.

"You try to establish some sort of guidelines ... there are those times when you know you're getting beat but there's nothing you can do," Banks said.

Retailers say they are somewhat stricter about their return policies if they have taken special care, especially around the holidays, to post their policies prominently and point them out to customers. After customers last year said they didn't notice her posting, Warder of Neat Stuff for Kids attached tags to each receipt stating her return policy.

Often a retailer's attitude about returns varies according to what the item is. It is standard practice, for health reasons, that items such as underwear and swimsuits are almost never returnable. But at Julia's, an upscale women's clothing store on Rockville Pike, the same applies to furs, accessories and evening wear.

Julia Sacasa, the store's owner, said her evening dresses are one of a kind. She would not risk having a woman buy a dress, wear it to a party and bring it back, leaving open the possibility that the same dress might appear on a different woman at a different affair.

But when it comes to more casual wear, Sacasa said she will gladly exchange an item for another one in her shop. And she makes rare exceptions to her policies about when she will accept returns -- within seven days -- and whether she will give charge card credits -- she doesn't.

Kim Warther and Angie Cavallaro, who opened the children's clothing store Once Upon a Child in Centreville last August, said they decided the best policy for their first holiday season was to be "a little bit flexible," as Warther put it. "Sometimes we'll say, 'take it home, try it, and if it doesn't work, bring it back.' "