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Amazon patents procedure to let recipients avoid undesirable gifts

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Most cleverly - or deviously, depending on your attitude toward this sort of manipulation - the gift giver will be none the wiser: "The user may also be provided with the option of sending a thank you note for the original gift," according to the patent, "even though the original gift is converted." (Alternatively, a recipient could choose to let the giver know he has exchanged the item for something else.)

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Amazon's idea represents the most drastic way of reducing return shipping costs in e-retailing. Companies have taken steps on the front end, including wish lists and e-mailed gift cards. ("I don't think gift cards are the end of the world, but people should try harder first," Post said.)

On the back end, retailers are trying to reduce shipping costs by using the less expensive U.S. Postal Service for at least part of the return journey. The Postal Service has partnered with its competitor, Federal Express, on a program called SmartPost, which consolidates individual packages into larger shipments.

"Any time you have to touch a product, there's a cost associated with that, and those costs add up," said Kevin Brown, marketing director for Newgistics, a Texas company that specializes in simplifying returns for e-retailers.

But it's not just shipping costs that e-retailers struggle with on returns. There are labor costs, too. Brown said each return typically results in about two phone calls to customer service lines. Also, returns require processing at distribution centers, which means extra staffing during the holiday season. And many opened products can't be returned to manufacturers and must be sold at a loss as refurbished items.

"This is absolutely a huge business problem," said Howe, the Yankee analyst.

Which is why, he said, shipping the right gift the first time seems like such a high priority. But although Amazon's idea might be exciting to analysts from a cost-savings perspective, even they admit there are potential drawbacks.

"This would require a huge shift in consumer behavior, which is always hard to achieve," Howe said. "And there's really some risk of backlash here."

Post, upholding her great-great-grandmother's legacy, said: "Gift giving is not just about the loot. It's about the fact that someone thought to get you something, and took the time to do it. That's no small thing in this world."

rosenwaldm@washpost.com To tell your story of the most difficult gift return you've made, go to Story Lab at www.washingtonpost.com/storylab.

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