December 25 is the traditional day for epic gift exchanges. Inevitably, it's also the start of an equally epic season for figuring out what to do with unwanted presents.
If you’re looking over one or more of your holiday gifts right now with puzzlement or disgust, and with a yearning to make it disappear in exchange for something—anything—else, you’re not alone. (Side note: If the above describes you, check yourself, you ungrateful SOB.) As my colleague Jacob Davidson pointed out, the most compelling reason to give gift cards for the holidays is that as many as three-quarters of Americans won’t like the gifts they receive. The cold-hearted but compelling 2009 book Scroogenomics made the argument that gift-giving wastes billions annually because it’s so rare for the recipient to deem the present worth the money that the giver paid for it. The result is that value is destroyed in the traditional exchange of surprise presents.
While returning a gift can be dicey because people’s feelings can be hurt, the purpose of a gift is to make the recipient happy. And the best givers will want that to be the result, regardless of whether the giftee keeps the original purchase or not. What’s more, it’s in the best interest of retailers to have good return policies because shoppers are more likely to make purchases at stores where it’s not a pain in the neck to do returns and exchanges.
Assuming that your mind is made up that you’d rather not simply live with the gift out of obligation or a fear of causing offense, your basic options are to return, exchange, or regift. Here’s some guidance on all fronts.
First off, if you know you don’t want the gift you’ve received—perhaps you already have one, or it’s not remotely in your taste—don’t open it. You have the best chance getting a refund or the full value in store credit for packages that are unopened and in brand-new condition. Next, check if the gift was accompanied by a gift or regular receipt. If yes, the person who bought the gift saved you some potentially big hassles, because without a receipt you may have no right whatsoever to a return or exchange. (Note to self: Always include gift receipts with presents.)
If there is no receipt, you could ask the giver—nicely, cautiously, graciously—where the gift was purchased and if he or she still had a copy of the receipt. This could be quite tricky, and if you’re going there it would be wise to mention how deeply you appreciate the thought behind the gift, but that there was a reason you wanted something slightly different; it could be as simple as needing a different size. Then again, there are reasons to steer way clear of this route. Not only could the giver wind up being offended, the situation could make an extremely awkward turn if, say, the giver didn’t want to reveal that the present was purchased at 85% off.
Assuming there is a receipt, look up the store’s return and exchange policy online, and then be sure to bring the item back to the store before the period expires. As the comprehensive holiday return report from the site Consumer World notes, around the holidays many major retailers institute policies that sensibly make it easy for recipients to bring items back after Christmas. Walmart, for instance, normally has return policies of 14, 15, or 30 days, depending on the item, but for purchases made between November 1 and December 24, the return period countdown doesn’t commence until December 26. In other words, if the item was normally subject to a 30-day return limit, the recipient would have to return it within 30 days of December 26, even if it was purchased in early November. What with the crush of crowds hitting the malls in the days right after Christmas, you might consider waiting for a bit before handling the return.
If you don’t have the receipt but you know where the item was purchased, go ahead and bring it back to the store. It’s likely the item was purchased with a credit card or was otherwise tracked by the retailer, so there will be a record of it on file, and you should be offered store credit or the right to exchange. (An outright cash refund is extremely unlikely, and pretty much impossible unless the original transaction was in cash, but it can’t hurt to ask.)
When bringing the item back, bring ID. According to the National Retail Federation, somewhere between 3.4% and 6.5% of returns are fraudulent, and one way retailers try to curtail abuse (and arguably, cut down on returns in general) is by requiring ID during returns and exchanges. Victoria’s Secret wound up on Consumer Reports “Naughty” list this year for its rigid requirement that customers present a government-issued ID for all returns and exchanges. Beyond having ID at the ready, be polite and patient. Store managers are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on a return if they perceive you as a potentially good customer down the road.
If you think that regifting is a no-no, you’re in the minority. An American Express survey revealed that 42% of Americans repurposed presents they received by passing them along as gifts to someone else, while 76% of respondents deem regifting as “acceptable.”
But as with hand-picked and purchased gifts themselves, there are thoughtful and thoughtless ways to go about regifting. For example, it’s bad form to regift an item within a circle of friends who socialize regularly because it’s easy to see how word could spread and everyone could find out where the gift originated. It’s also the opposite of generous to pass along a gift to someone else when you found it hideous. Check out our five-step guide to regifting to repurpose presents in a way that won’t offend anyone, and that (hopefully) won’t get you branded as a crass, thoughtless regifter—which is even worse than being a thoughtless giver.