Be honest but tactful about returning or exchanging a gift — and do it sooner than later.
“The Rules” is a Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money or workplace topics like giving an allowance, who pays on a date, combining finances with your partner, and more.
Mother-in-laws often give gifts to change their not-quite-good-enough daughter-in-laws. Not mine. She tries so hard to skew towards my taste, that it’s actually very sweet.
I’m the proud owner of two cats, so often (always) her gifts are cat-themed. Cat clothes, cat-printed cashmere socks, “meow” T-shirts. Cats with a little jazz and sparkle. This reached new heights with her last gift, however: a $695 Anya Hindmarch “Kitsch Cat” mesh tote bag, which is teal with a huge cat print on the front.
She strolled into my recent baby shower carrying the huge Bergdorf Goodman box it was enclosed in, complete with a big red bow. She is fabulous. And generous. That’s why this is tricky; what was meant to be a designer diaper bag just wasn’t my style. Before I even opened it, my husband laughed, “So when are you returning it?”
Two days later, I was in the customer service section of the Fifth Avenue retailer, hoping they’d take it back without the receipt, which I had lost. They looked up some simple information, asked for a photo ID, and I left with a gift card worth $695, plus tax. Then the guilt set in. She had picked this expensive gift out just for me, and here I was bringing it right back.
Then again, who hasn’t perfected their “I love it!” face? Returns are so rampant, UPS even informally named a National Returns Day — a January date after the December holidays giving spree when shoppers return around 1.3 million packages. One study reports that 48% of women return gifts they receive.
Which is OK, if you handle it right.
Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and co-president of The Emily Post Institute, told Moneyish how to handle an awkward return.
“Returning a gift does not negate the spirit of the gift,” Lizzie says. “If the gift included a receipt, she probably knew you would want to return it. If not, just say thank you and in a nice tone say, ‘It’s not quite my color,’ or another polite explanation, and ask, ‘Would you mind if I exchanged it for something better suited for me?’ She likely won’t mind.”
Me? I was too much of a coward to tell her. And I was almost outed when the sales clerk at Bergdorf asked if they should “alert” her to the return over email. Uh, no thank you! But now, I’ll probably have to say something to her.
Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman told Moneyish that honesty is the best policy here.
For instance, this is what you could say if someone gives you a two-piece bathing suit that you would never wear: “Say, ‘I’m looking forward to our family vacation to the beach, but I’m really not a bikini girl. Would you mind if I exchanged it for something else I could use or wear on our trip?’” she suggested.
But if you know that expressing any displeasure with the gift will cause more drama than it’s worth, keep it and say nothing, and use it when your mother-in-law visits. “It really depends on the relationship you have with her, and her proximity to you on a daily basis,” said Gottsman.
Just don’t regift it or give it away if there is any chance that the giver can find out. You can always gently nudge her in the right direction on future gifts, instead.
“You can either drop subtle hints or outright tell her what is on your wishlist,” said Gottsman.
If you decide to take it back, look up the rules for the retailer’s returns; stores by law post their refund policy at entryways, on cash registers or on the items themselves. And although the return or exchange window is usually 30 days, experts say it’s important to return things as soon as you can, because retailers are often faced with fraudulent returns.
In fact, total merchandise returns account for more than $260.5 billion in lost sales for U.S. retailers yearly, according to a 2015 report on consumer returns. “If merchandise returns were a corporation, it would rank number three on the Fortune 500 list,” the report found. Gift returns, specifically, rank No. 5 on reasons why merchandise is brought back, totaling roughly $64.1 million a year.
You can always return an item for cash or store credit within the exchange window with a receipt, but consider whether the value of the gift will increase over time. “If so, it might be worth hanging onto,” said Douglas Boneparth, financial advisor and founder of Bone Fide Wealth. Take an Hermes Birkin Bag, for instance, which on the lower end costs about $20,000. If you keep it, years later it will be worth much more if it’s still in perfect condition. (Which it will be if you hate it and never use it.)
But again, consider whether the emotional fallout from the giver is worth the windfall from hawking an unwanted present. “An angry family member might not be something that’s worth returning or cashing out an expensive gift over,” said Boneparth. “Before you take cash, think about the appropriateness of doing so, and whether or not you’re ruining the spirit of the gift.”
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