Dec 20, 2021

Many Unhappy Returns (And We Don’t Mean The Irs)

When is it better to gift than reprieve?

By Ed Goldman
I‘m glad to hear that the supply chain’s getting back in working order—just in time for us to receive and return unwanted holiday gifts.

According to a report on WGRZ, the NBC affiliate in Buffalo, New York, “About 80 percent of consumers will return some gifts, while nearly 20 percent will return more than half of their Christmas gifts.” You’re probably curious as to why I went all the way to the East Coast to glom this factoid. My three-word answer: frequent flyer points.

Edgy Cartoon

Package Duel

What accounts for these numbers? Do most of us simply have no taste when it comes to procuring presents? Are we buying See’s Candy samplers for diabetic friends, video games for glaucoma patients or rare books for the cast of “Duck Dynasty” (for whom any book would be rare)?

My mom excelled at giving inappropriate presents. When I was in my 20s, and already had a fondness for fine cigars, she asked me what kind I smoked. I told her: Churchills. Sure enough for Chanukah, she presented me with a box of chartreuse House of Windsor cigars, which at the time cost about 12 cents each. (Note to younger readers: Twelve cents back then would be worth at least 13 cents in today’s economy.)

Upon receipt of the cigars, I gamely lit one, rapidly turning into the same shade as the stogie. This was immortalized in the film classic, “How Green Was My Belly.”

Another time, she sent me a dress shirt in a Nordstrom gift box. The shirt had been made in Korea, whose tailors must think American men are built along the lines of Tyrannosaurus Rexes—short arms and bloated torsos—and that we favor orange-and-blue check patterns.

I drove to the Nordstrom in my area—which has since closed but this anecdote must be adjuged blameless—to return or at least exchange it. The sales clerk in the Men’s Department looked at the shirt, looked at the Nordstrom box, then at me.

“How dare you,” he said quietly, walking away, possibly in search of someone from store security. Since Nordstrom was world-famous for its customer service, this was the upscale-retail equivalent of having my skull cleaved with an ice axe (elegantly, of course).

One of the aspects of gift returns that doesn’t get enough attention is what to do when we’ve returned or exchanged a present—a high-profile or visual one—and then absently invite the gifter to dinner at our place.

Sometimes we remember in time and can fashion a decent excuse—like, “We thought the water bowl you gave us was gorgeous but its psychedelic pattern scared the dog so we donated it to science; the bowl, I mean”—but sometimes this patently false pay-it-forward gambit doesn’t work.

As an example, let’s say a couple who work as sculpting partners presented you some time ago with a 3/4-scale papier-mâché piece of a whole-life insurance agent—complete with a built-in sensor that emits a sales pitch as you walk within four feet of the damn thing. If you’ve wisely conscribed the monstrosity to the garage or city dump, make sure you’re more careful constructing your alibi than as follows:

YOU: We loved the sculpture so much that we put it in our office so our clients could see it when they came in.

SCULPTING COUPLE: We thought you started working from home two years ago because of COVID.

YOU: Who wants some pâté?

The gifts I’m suspicious of are the ones for which you receive this kind of note:

“Dear You:

“Knowing how not-into-material-things you are, and how strong your social conscience is, we’ve decided that instead of buying you an expensive gift this year, we’ve made a handsome donation in your name to Moms for Natural-Fiber Soccer Uniforms. Happy holidays!”

It would take only a simple phone call to “out” the perpetrator of such hypocrisy. But knowing ourselves, this is how the call would go:

RECEPTIONIST: Good morning! Moms for Natural-Fiber Soccer Uniforms. How may I direct your call?

YOU: This is [YOUR NAME]. Could you please tell me if you’ve received a holiday donation in our name?

RECEPTIONIST: No. How dare you.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).