How to return that awful sweater from Mom—without asking her for the receipt

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‘Twas the night after Christmas…
‘Twas the night after Christmas…
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

It’s the moment we all dread–getting a gift (or giving one) that’s a total dud—wrong size, wrong color, wrong brand, wrong style.

According to Deloitte’s 2013 survey of 5,018 consumers, cash was the most wanted of gifts.


When I worked retail for three holiday seasons, I was stunned by how few shoppers knew what to buy for their loved ones, like the guy who grilled me for half an hour about might possibly please his 14-year-old daughter.

How best, then, to handle an unwanted gift? There’s the logistics of handling returns (where the ease of online shopping suddenly screeches to a halt) and then there’s the etiquette. The good news is retailers are trying to make it easier for customers to make returns, including free shipping, special lines, returns in person for items ordered online. Here’s some advice from the experts on how to handle it all.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Hardest question first: Can you ask the giver for a receipt so you can return it?

“If possible, don’t,” says April Masini, author of advice column AskApril. “Sometimes it’s better manners to let a gift that isn’t your cup of tea just go. For instance, a book you’ve already read or a piece of pottery that isn’t your taste or style are gifts you should not ask for a return receipt for. Keep them, donate them, or re-gift them, (as long as they’re not engraved or signed to you!).”

Around the holidays, honesty has its place—or not really. “I’d try to avoid the situation altogether if it’s possible,” agrees Michelle Madhok, a style and shopping expert and the author of Wear this Now: Your Style Solution for Every Season and Any Occasion and founder of fashion site “If you know where the item was purchased, I’d furtively try to call the store, explain the situation and see if they’ll make an exchange without the receipt.  Some stores will.”

The conversation

If that doesn’t work, you need to have the talk. Here’s how:

“First tell the person who gave you the gift how much you absolutely appreciate their gift. There are a variety of reasons you can give as to why you need the receipt: it didn’t fit, it arrived broken/torn, I already have the same one,” Madhok says.

A subtle approach works best, says Masini.

“When someone you see regularly has given you a sweater that’s too small, they’ll notice if you’re not wearing it.” Share a partial truth–“You love the gift, but it’s just a little too small. That’s their cue to offer to exchange it for you. If they don’t pick up the cue, give them another chance by offering to exchange it for a bigger size. If they agree, thank them and offer to do it if they have a gift receipt. If they insist on exchanging it themselves, let them—they may be uncomfortable with you knowing what they paid or want to save you the trouble. (This rule works in reverse, if you’ve given someone something that needs a return!)”

Act quickly

The only thing worse than the lines before Christmas is the line after Christmas. But it is in your best interest to return unwanted items quickly. “As an online retailer, I really really want customers to return quickly,” says Haralee Weintraub, CEO of, which sells women’s sleepwear. “I have a record so if it was a gift and the customer does not want an exchange I can only refund the gift giver. … Our inventory gets depleted over Christmas. If they don’t want the gift giver to know and they don’t want an exchange, or credit, I have no choice but to notify the gift giver.”

Some major retailers make it easy to return merchandise to them, anywhere and any time. Macy’s, which has 840 stores in the US,  has a generous return policy and says it will “accept merchandise in any condition with no time limit,” says spokeswoman Beth Charlton. Macy’s will take anything back except furniture and mattresses.

If you’re returning an item with a receipt, gift receipt, or merchandise return label, you’ll get the full value. If you have no receipt at all, Macy’s will offer the lowest selling price within the last 180 days. Like many other retailers, Macy’s will also accept returns from items bought online in any of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

Pick the right line

Some retailers have specially designated associates, who are specifically trained to handle returns. Upon entry, be sure to ask the store if there is such a line reserved only for returns.

Be nice. By Dec. 26, associates are run ragged and rarely have power or authority to do anything beyond what they’ve been told. Do not take your anger out on them. Politely, ask to speak to a manager. Be prepared to wait.

It’s hard to say when the best times of day or week are for returns, but I’d suggest calling the store and simply asking how the line’s looking at that moment.

Online exchange place

If you’re returning a gift to a store, bear in mind that, “in-store exchanges may limit your choices as you typically can only pick what’s available in-store,” warns Kanaru Fukushima, a consultant at the leading ecommerce consultancy, FitForCommerce.  For online flash sale sites like Gilt, you might even get to keep the item and get a refund, says Ty McMahan, content director for StellaService, a company that rates online retailers’ customer service. “We do see this with a lot of flash retailers. If it’s an item worth less than $20 or so, it’s not worth the expense to them of taking it back.”

Using mystery shoppers, StellaService rates on-line retailers, awarding only 16—including,, and—a perfect score. Others that have scored high enough to receive their “Stella seal” include, Sears, and Gilt.

The challenge of returning merchandise bought online is the variety of service you’ll encounter. “It’s usually streamlined, but the processes can be very very different between distribution facilities. Seven days is a pretty good speed of return,” says Kevon Hills, director of research for StellaService.

Two factors affect how quickly you get your refund or new merchandise: the time it takes to get your unwanted gift back to the warehouse and the time needed to process your refund. Many retailers are now offering instant refunds even before they have the merchandise back in their hands, giving shoppers up to 30 days to get it back to them.

Amazon started this trend in November of this year, says Hills. While it can lead to fraudulent claims, “more and more companies are doing this. If someone is defrauding a company, they can flag your account.”

Another new option is Rather than stand in line at the mall or hassling with UPS boxes, send your unwanted items to them and they’ll find you someone, somewhere desperate for that hideous sweater.