Only one thing trumps the preholiday stress of buying gifts—the postholiday stress of deciding whether to return them. When the wrapping paper has been cleared and your rictus smile has relaxed, it’s time for coldhearted assessments. That lumpy sweater? So ugly, it’s actually insulting.
But is returning ethical? This is a question that splits giftees into ideological camps. One group holds that, no matter how awful the gift, you should never, ever take it back. You can tell my husband belongs to this faction just by looking at him: His shirts are wrinkled because he wedges them into a closet packed with years of accumulated gift disasters—some of which, I admit, I’ve given him. (Among my “favorites”: a slopey-shouldered Sherlock Holmes–style overcoat and a professional-grade shoe-shine kit.)
These people face twin psychological hurdles. They find the very act of approaching the counter, unwanted gift in hand, shameful. (Which is just what stores want, of course—even Chuck Schumer has found time to campaign against repeat-returner blacklists.) And they think that returning a gift is an insult.
The other group (of which I am a member) believes in—even encourages—returns. It’s our conviction that the point is to get something the recipient likes, so we make it clear adjustments won’t offend. In fact, a faux-fawning response to gifts you secretly loathe makes a mockery of the giver. How does he learn your taste if you keep sending the wrong message?
If you’re not brave enough to vocalize your true thoughts, use subtle signals. Don’t gush in a thank-you note, and dispatch the bad gift as soon as you can. For certain items (like that magnum of Freixenet), cost-benefit analysis will show that regifting is easier. The other option is to return the present—discreetly.
Brooks Brothers, Bloomingdale’s, Williams-Sonoma, Paragon, Kiehl’s, and large chains like Bed Bath & Beyond allow no-receipt exchanges without a time limit. But at most stores, you must act fast. There’s a better chance of store credit or full-price exchange if the offending item is in stock and not on sale. Scoop’s official policy is two weeks with a receipt; at Hermès, it’s ten days. Others extend their time frame for the holidays: Jonathan Adler’s policy is typically 30 days with a receipt, but for gifts it relaxes the rules. (Staff at many stores are allowed to do the same at their discretion—so be nice.)
Receipts aren’t an issue in designer stores that helpfully (or creepily) log sold items. Tiffany & Co. allows 30 days from purchase; at Cartier, where gifts are tracked by serial number, the deadline is a month. Alex Bittar jewelry allows two weeks. At La Perla and Gucci, you have only ten days. (For those willing to skirt the ethical borderline, a tip: If you have a gift from a shop that doesn’t allow exchanges, try a large department store that carries the brand. It might give you credit.)
Remember: Unwrap with care. Sephora will exchange a lipstick even if it has teeth marks on it, but Virgin requires CDs to be unopened, and Apple charges a 10 percent restocking fee on opened iPod boxes.
And next time, consider your own gift-giving habits. Include gift receipts or return mailing labels in the box—and while you should, of course, remove the price, leave the tags on. After all, there’s a selfish reason to do all this—if you set an example, chances are the good gift karma will come full circle.