OFFBEAT: Many Happy Returns

Register business writer It happens to the best of us. The horrid holiday sweater, th
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

Register business writer

It happens to the best of us.

The horrid holiday sweater, the dusty tin of popcorn or powdered cookies; maybe even the Big Mouth Billy singing bass. (Hey, who could resist something that calms your worries and tells you to be happy---over and over and over again?)

Whether they’re two sizes too big, too small or miss the mark completely, receiving unwanted gifts have become almost as much a part of the holidays as the exchange itself.

More than one-third of all Americans return gifts after the holidays, according to an American Express consumer survey.

Bad gifts often come wrapped in the best of intentions. One study even confirms what many of us have known for years — we’re far more likely to get them from the ones we love.

Conducted by Davy Lerouge and Luk Warlop, the international study, aptly titled, “Why it is so Hard to Predict our Partner’s Product Preferences: The Effect of Target Familiarity on Prediction Accuracy,” surveyed 83 couples who had been together for an average of 23 months and presented the couples with factual information about their partners. When the factual information countered their preconceived notions about their partners, they were far more likely to dismiss it.

“People we love, we assume, are a lot like us,” said Suzanne Wu, a spokesperson for the study. “The study showed that we have plenty of information, we just choose to ignore it when we hear information that conflicts with our view of people. When presented with new information about a stranger, however, we tend to be far more receptive to it.”

Part of the tendency to overlook the obvious clues about what’s on our loved ones wish lists might come not only from an assumption that we know their tastes, but also from a desire to surprise them. When we’re really trying to impress that special person, handing them a gift card or an item they specifically requested can feel taking the cop-out route. The holidays can heap overwhelming expectations to deliver the gift of a lifetime — that rare gem that captures everything we want to say and to render them speechless.

And so, we set out on a mission to the mall, ignore the less-than-subtle clues from our relatives, and wait for the perfect gift to jump out at us. Except that after a few hours of long lines and crowds, some of us are willing to go with the first item we knock off the shelf — even if that item happens to be the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” Christmas CD.

It happens to the best of us, givers and recipients alike. Sometimes people just don’t want to be surprised, no matter what the occasion. My dad is one of them. His closet — lined with the same flannel shirts he gets every year — could be the dressing room for Home Improvement’s Tool Time assistant Al Borland.

One year, my mom thought she would surprise him with a “hip” new gadget that was still considered a novelty in the 90s — a cell phone.

Caught up in her excitement, she naturally ignored his yearly requests for socks, handkerchiefs and jeans. Needless to say, the phone was hastily — and begrudgingly — exchanged for a pair of Levi’s.

Unless we’ve really done our research, sometimes it’s best to just stick to the list.

With only a few shopping days to go, it might be a good idea to take stock of the stash of gifts we’ve collected for our loved ones, while also preparing for the possibility of receiving a surprise or two that leaves us truly at a loss for words.

As a testament to our bad gift-giving, Web sites for exchanging those unwanted items abound. There’s Bad Gift Emporium (where bad gifts get a second chance and people can actually browse through a gallery of things like porcelain hamburgers), and HallofBadGifts.com. There’s even a bad gift section on eBay.. But there are a few creative ways to honor your bad gifts. If you’re unfortunate enough to wind up with the snowman sweater or jingle bell socks, try hosting a post-holiday party with a “wear your ugliest Christmas clothes” theme. Snow globes will at least double as paperweights, and those long-dreaded fruitcakes can add some heft to your car if you happen to drive a lightweight like mine that’s rendered helpless in a light blanket of snow.

And that Chipmunks’ Christmas CD will make a great coaster.