Are you headed back to the mall this weekend, gift receipts in hand, to exchange gifts that were the wrong size, the wrong color, or just plain WRONG? Do you have tales worthy of Gawker’s Worst Gift-Giving Stories post? Do you carefully save the original packaging for certain gifts delivered by mail, knowing that you’ll have to figure out a way to send the damn thing back?
According to an article in today’s Washington Post, Amazon wants to change all that, at least, if you’re buying your gifts from Amazon:
Amazon is working on a solution that could revolutionize digital gift buying. The online retailer has quietly patented a way for people to return gifts before they receive them, and the patent documents even mention poor Aunt Mildred. Amazon’s innovation, not ready for this Christmas season, includes an option to “Convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred,” the patent says. “For example, the user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user.” In other words, the consumer could keep an online list of lousy gift-givers whose choices would be vetted before anything ships.
As someone who dreads gift-giving season, I think this sounds like a great idea. I live in a New York City apartment that requires keeping stuff-levels well under control, so gifts often create a clutter headache. Fortunately, half of my family has mostly given up on giving stuff and makes donations to each other’s pet charities. On the other side of my family, the main gift giver has for years been struggling with the depression and encroaching dementia, and her foggy thinking means that 20-something family members get oddly age-inappropriate things like toy helicopters, while others receive the exact same gifts year after year (I have donated multiple identical sweater sets, robes and pajamas to the Salvation Army). Obviously, the only correct response to is to smile and say thank you. But then you have to figure out what to do with the stuff.
But what if you didn’t have to? What if you could discreetly swap out the hideous XL reindeer turtleneck or ensure that you wouldn’t get duplicate toaster ovens? Tempting, right? But is it selfish and inconsiderate? Some people think so:
Amazon’s idea has raised the ire of the Miss Manners crowd, which thinks the scheme rather uncouth. After all, receiving an e-mail notification of a forthcoming gift – and thereby being able to check its price – is hardly the same as unwrapping the item at home.
Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of the late etiquette author Emily Post and spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute, said she hopes the company realizes it is risking major backlash and abandons the idea. Because of Amazon’s dominance online, she and others say they fear the idea could spread throughout the e-retailing industry, which this holiday season racked up $28 billion in gift purchases.
“This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving,” Post said. “The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us. Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world’s transactions.”
I think Post doesn’t quite get it—this innovation wouldn’t prevent someone from going through the action of buying something for us. It would just ensure that they buy us something that we like, rather than something that they think is right for us. Nor does this make gift-giving transactional in the sense of “I give you something so that I can get something.” It’s still a gift, after all.
I do think there’s something to be said for teaching people that “it’s the thought that counts.” You can’t always get what you want. Learning to smile and be polite when disappointed by a lousy but well-intentioned gift is a valuable learning experience; it teaches you to prioritize other people’s kindness over your own gratification. But personally, I wouldn’t be offended if someone wanted to use that Amazon program to make sure I got them something they actually wanted and liked. In fact, it would save me a lot of trouble.
So…is the end of gift-giving as we know it? A brilliant innovation? Another reason to shun Amazon? Discuss. Feel free to share your worst gift stories and vote in the Post‘s “Tacky or Terrific?” poll.