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

Americans 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 [3].

“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.

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?