How to return a terrible gift without letting the giver know how much you hated it

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It's not so easy to return a gift without a gift receiptAmericans will spend an average of $737.95 each on the holidays this year, according to research from the National Retail Federation, and a substantial portion of that will no doubt be spent by very nice people — with the best of intentions — on truly terrible gifts.

Yes, many of us will participate in the annual post-holiday ritual of hunting through the boxes that brought us that Big Mouth Billy Bass or unfunny novelty t-shirt, desperately trying to find some kind of clue about where it was purchased so it can be returned as quickly as possible before anyone sees it.

If you can find a gift receipt, that’s great. But what if you can’t? Of course, you could call your grandmother or uncle and try to find out where they got the gift without explicitly mentioning you plan to return it because it’s the most useless item you can imagine one human being buying another human being. In my experience at least, it’s very hard if not impossible to find out without getting the dreaded guilt-producing question: “What, you didn’t like it?”

Look for a retailer sticker

If you’re concerned about hurting the person’s feeling but still want to return a gift because it makes your eyes hurt, you may want to look on the product for a barcode sticker affixed by the retailer, says Andrea Woroch, a consumer adviser at Kinoli, at consumer app maker Kinoli.

“A lot of retailers, like Nordstrom’s or Macy’s for instance, they’ll use their own barcodes for returns that they’ve put right onto the package. So you can check to see if there’s a specifically marked barcode,” Woroch says.

Technology will save us

If there’s no retailer sticker, all is not lost; as it has so many times in human history, technology can come to your rescue. As long as the gift has some kind of a barcode, smartphone users can download a barcode reading app such as Red Laser or ShopSavvy to find out what the heck the item is called and, in many cases, who carries it. If the barcode app can’t find out exactly what store nearby sold it, a little web sleuthing should help you find a store that sells the item nearby.

From there, you can take it back to the store and see what they’ll give you, which no matter what it is, will probably be more valuable to you than that Matlock DVD box set or leopard-print Snuggie you’re holding. Fortunately, many stores loosen up their return policies for the holidays, so they may be willing to give you cash when they normally wouldn’t. But even if they just give you store credit on a gift card, that’s better than nothing.

Some might balk at the ethics of returning a good to a story you’re not strictly sure sold it in the first place, but seeing as you’ll probably only get store credit for it, the store will probably end up keeping the money anyway, Woroch says.

“I have returned something that I didn’t know if it was at that retailer but they were able to accept it, like at Bed, Bath and Beyond, where they have so many brands they sell,” Woroch says. “Would that be considered an immoral way of returning something? I don’t know. But they did take it back.”

Once you have the gift card in hand, you can use it for a future gift-giving occasion or, for extra cheapskate street cred, you could sell it online at sites such as Cardpool, Plastic Jungle or Gift Card Granny, Woroch says (Woroch’s company Kinoli is behind Gift Card Granny).

Get an upgrade

If there’s absolutely no way to identify the retailer, or you live too far away from a place that carries the item to return it in person, you could trade it in for a discount on a similar item. Especially with electronics, some stores will take an older phone or other device and give you a discount if you buy from them, Woroch says.

Will it flip?

As a last resort, you could try flipping the item on eBay.

“I oftentimes do that to try and get some cash back for it,” Woroch says.

That’s probably what I’ll be doing with the awesome original Nintendo game cartridges I “won” in the office Yankee swap. I’m generally not a huge fan of doing business on the site, but if you’re selling something you don’t really want anyway, it’s not a huge loss if you end up getting swindled.

How can I return a gift that was made in the '80s?

Re-gift it and let someone else deal with it

Failing that, if you’re feeling Machiavellian, you can always put the present in the back of your closet with a post-it attached telling you who it’s from, re-gift it to some poor sap next year and let them deal with it, “The Ring”-style.

Just make sure it’s not too obvious, Woroch says.

“I’ve received things in the past where I know the person re-gifted it, so if I ever re-gift something it’s only when I know that that person has said that they wanted it, or I’ve seen them wear something similar if it’s clothing or jewelry,” Woroch says. “So I think you have to put a lot more thought into re-gifting unless it’s like a candle.”

What do you think? How do you return a gift with no receipt without hurting the giver’s feelings?

{ 5 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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5 Responses to “How to return a terrible gift without letting the giver know how much you hated it”

  1. I know the question was about returning a gift without hurting someone’s feeling but it makes me think about those people who are difficult to buy for. Like my boss. She always tells me about the gifts she receives from people at work and how she can’t use it, or she’s giving it to someone in her family because they need it more. She is a challenge to buy for – but she’s always gets me something for my birthday and Christmas. What I’ve found works really well with her is to buy something I know she uses. For example, she does batch cooking and she’s always in need of the bags for the vacuum sealer machine. I know she WILL use those so I get her a box of those from Costco, or a set of plastic containers with lids. At least I know she’s actually going to use them, not give them away.

  2. dragonflower says:

    One of the interesting twists on this is the giver who gives a gift because it is something THEY like, not what YOU will like! An example is the electronics geek who gives you gadgets or software, believing that YOU will find it useful, because THEY find it useful. Often, it is a nice gift – but you don’t want it and have no use for it. It’s emotionally more difficult to return this type of gift than one that is a piece of junk. I’ve said to the person, “I know you find this to be a valuable electronics product, but would you mind if I exchanged it for something else that would be more suited to my needs?” I’ve never had a problem when I phrased it this way. It makes my point without insulting their gift.

  3. libertyanne says:

    If all else fails sell it at a yard sale. You can’t get full price for it but you can always charge more for something NEW and in the box.

  4. Sharon says:

    I thought the policy of many major stores was you absolutely cannot return an item without a receipt. I’ve had this experience at Target and Macy’s, for example.

  5. judy says:

    I once offered to take a faux fur woman’s vest off a coworkers hands. She didn’t want it because she couldn’t stand the feel of it. I thought I might like it but realized quickly this was a hideous looking vest. The store ID tag was on it (not the price) and it was from SteinMart. Though there are no SteinMarts in my area, I send a quick e-mail and stating it was given as a gift but I just did not like it and would never wear it, would they take it back? They not only answered me back, yes, they also said the price was $40.00.
    I mailed it back to their HDQ and they sent me a check for $40.00. I never told my coworker that I did that. Felt alittle guilty, but hey, I thought of doing it, she didn’t.

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