For millions of people, returning unwanted gifts is as much an annual holiday tradition as festive gatherings with friends and families and overindulging in calorie-filled foods and cocktails. In fact, nearly one-third of Americans will return at least one present this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.

For millions of people, returning unwanted gifts is as much an annual holiday tradition as festive gatherings with friends and families and overindulging in calorie-filled foods and cocktails. In fact, nearly one-third of Americans will return at least one present this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation.


Most will be heading to brick-and-mortar stores, but a growing number will be able to avoid the crowds and handle returns with a couple of mouse clicks — all from the comfort of their own homes. A MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse report released Dec. 23 finds cyber shoppers drove online holiday sales to a record $36.4 billion — a 15.4 percent jump from 2009.


While the convenience of online returns is a definite plus, the trade-off is the inevitable delay that follows while the company waits to receive the returned item, then packages, ships and delivers the replacement gift. And free return shipping is not offered by all Internet retailers, so some gift recipients may find themselves on the hook for the return shipping fee.


But an Amazon.com idea could make the need for online returns a thing of the past — at least for those whose gifts come from the online-retail giant. The Washington Post reports Amazon has patented a method that would help recipients avoid the hassle altogether by allowing exchanges before an item is even shipped.


So how would it work? Let’s say you have someone who consistently picks presents you return. There would be an option to “convert all gifts,” according to the patent. “For example, the user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user.”


Other rules in the 12-page long patent would let a user flag presents that might be made from a material that person dislikes. For example, ever since I was little I have been known for my love of soft clothing, so someone who knows that might think a cashmere sweater would be the perfect present for me. However, I am also the only person I know of who finds even top-of-the-line cashmere unbearably itchy, so I would be able to create a rule for that using the “Gift Conversion Rules Wizard.”


On the surface it all sounds like a great idea. Recipients would only get gifts they really want, and Amazon — as well as other e-retailers who followed its lead — would save bundles by reducing return shipping expenses. But Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of the late etiquette author Emily Post and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, told the Post, “This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving. The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us. Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world’s transactions.”


I have to agree with her. The magic of the holiday season just wouldn’t be the same without the mystery of wondering what those brightly wrapped boxes and bags contain. To me, that is a large part of the fun, and well worth the effort it takes to exchange an item or two each year.


Besides, as my mother always says, it’s the thought that counts.


Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekintimes.com.