Sue McCormick's parents bought her the things she said she wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, though, she changed her mind. So yesterday she and her father, George McCormick, 52, of Potomac, returned the silk lounging outfit.

"The wrong style, cut and color," the 25-year-old daughter said. And the tobacco-colored Coach briefcase was exchanged for a brick and tan one, plus a matching purse they threw in while they were at it. And while they were at Bloomingdale's in White Flint Mall, they picked up an "otter-colored European cut coat," as Sue described it. The Liz Claiborne wallet? Well, "that will be exchanged."

But the watch she liked just fine.

On the day after Christmas, at malls and shops all over the metropolitan area, from White Flint to Georgetown, it was a day of making peace with clashing tastes, of righting the wrong sizes or just cashing in on postholiday sales and buying those gifts that, somehow, Santa forgot.

Some stores, such as Herman's World of Sporting Goods near the Mazza Gallerie in Northwest, anticipated so many returned gifts that they set up special desks to handle the flow. Business was brisk all over, with stores anticipating greater sales than at this time last year.

Parking lots were jammed, malls were mobbed and store aisles were packed with humans and their shopping bags. Merchandise in some stores had been picked through and over, up and down so much that stacks of neatly folded sweaters had become mounds of cloth and shoes had toppled like dominoes.

At The Sharper Image in Georgetown Park, there was so much business that a security guard at times asked shoppers to wait outside until the crowds inside thinned. "It's not a very pleasant experience when you're walking on top of people," said Dan Hughes, the store's assistant manager.

There was a smaller crowd at Olsson's Books and Records in Georgetown, where Gregory Johnson, 34, of Northwest searched for a late gift, a copy of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," for his nephew. "And something for myself. This is on sale," he said, holding up a copy of "Great Baseball Feats, Facts and Firsts." "This is pure greed."

"And later on we're going to another store to find a purse that he was supposed to get me," said his wife Brenda, 32. There was only one gift that the couple was contemplating returning, but it came from a family member and they didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by telling.

Dressed in black, Rebecca Leer, 27, of San Francisco browsed in the bookstore after exchanging the right gift -- a daily organizer -- that came in the wrong color, burgundy. "Everything I have is black so it might as well match," she said.

Despite the crowds and the long lines at some counters, shoppers appeared to be "relaxed and in a good mood," observed Stewart Carroll, operating vice president of Bloomingdale's in White Flint.

Kent Miller, 35, who was in town from San Francisco visiting his parents in Bethesda, stood in line to return a winter green sweater and burgundy turtleneck given him by his mother. "It's not my style, I guess. Not colors that I'm wearing," he said. Standing next to him was Carden McGee, 35, of Bethesda, who planned to pop into Neiman-Marcus to return a black cashmere scarf that Miller gave him. He already had two just like it. "The story with us is a clash of cultures, contemporary versus classical," McGee said.

For Marcia Duvall, 33, of Northwest, exchanging gifts she receives from one particular friend, a male, each year has become a ritual. This time, it was a mint-colored sweater. Didn't it fit? "It probably would fit. I never bothered to try it on. It's pretty, but . . . " and then she held up a striking red and black blouse. " . . . this is hotter!"

Staff writer David Hilzenrath contributed to this report.