Is the Amazon Gift Converter a Threat to Civilized Living?

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Close-up of a gift Horizontal

'Tis the season... to receive something you absolutely hate from someone who probably means well but has terrible taste. We've all had that experience; whether it be clothing the wrong size or in a regrettable style, or simply a knick-knack you would never in a million years display in your home, it happens. And now Amazon is in the news for saying it doesn't have to be that way.

Specifically, Amazon has obtained a patent being referred to as a "gift converter," and the following is an excerpt from the patent filing:

With the increasing popularity of network shopping services (e.g., websites that enable users to make purchases on-line), the popularity of purchasing gifts through network shopping services has also increased. As in other gift-giving situations, it sometimes occurs that gifts purchased on-line do not meet the needs or tastes of the gift recipient. For example, the recipient may already have the item and may not need another one of that same item. Alternatively, the item may not be the right size, the right type, the right style, and so on. In such situations, the recipient may wish to convert the gift to something else, for example, by exchanging the gift for another item or by obtaining a redemption coupon, gift card, or other gift certificate to be redeemed later....

It's being described as a "bad gift defense system;" you could reject/exchange a gift before it's ever delivered to you.

Is it any surprise that everybody's ready to get their outrage on? Why, we've even got the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post weighing in, as if her reaction is somehow unexpected:

Sound good to you?

Anna Post says think again. "Dishonest, is the blunt answer," said the great-great granddaughter of etiquette guru Emily Post.

"Aunt Mildred thought to give you a gift," Post said. "Lucky you. It's not every day someone thinks to buy you a present."

According to Post, it's okay to return gifts you really won't use, but to return something before it's even received takes the focus away from the appreciation of being given a gift.

"A gift is expressing a much bigger sentiment behind it. To cut someone short before they can complete that process is the ultimate interruption," Post said.

We could argue manners all the day long; some etiquette experts frown on the exchanging of any gift, ever, or opine at length as to the hows and circumstances under which it is acceptable (with the comment thread being that the giver must be none the wiser, natch). It's a cluster-you-know-what from an etiquette standpoint. Obviously. Watching folks churn the water in the wake of this announcement is pretty comical, because whether or not the etiquette is acceptable, this so-called gift converter hasn't actually happened yet.

And here's what I think: It probably never will.

Look; you can patent just about anything you want. In order to patent a concept you need only 1) to be able to describe it and 2) for it to be something not already patented. That's it. Lots and lots of things are patented every year that are never turned into anything.

Amazon is a retailer. The way that retailers work is that consumers give them money for an agreed-upon product or service, and then the retailer delivers the agreed-upon goods. Right now, if I give Amazon money to send a sweater to my great-aunt Tilly, they can't decide to send her decorative toothpicks, instead. That would be a breach of our consumer agreement. The only way Amazon can take my money for a sweater and then turn around and send Aunt Tilly those toothpicks is if somewhere in my agreement with them, I grant permission for them to substitute a different item. It really doesn't matter if Aunt Tilly eagerly checks off something in her Amazon Profile that says, "Yes, yes, please allow me to substitute potential gifts I hate with other useless crap I'd rather have! Thanks!" It's not Aunt Tilly's money; it's my money, and Amazon would need my permission to do something other than what I've paid them to do.

That said, the way this might sort of end up working would be for Amazon to offer gift purchasers the option of notifying the giftee ahead of time and offering them the ability to exchange prior to delivery. I suppose that somewhere in the world, someone might think that's a fabulous idea and go ahead and agree to those terms upon purchase, as convoluted as it ends up sounding.

But honestly? That option already exists in a much more straightforward implementation. It's called buying a gift certificate.

Good on Amazon for coming up with new ideas, and good for their lawyers for making sure all their bases are covered. But horrified etiquette gurus, I wouldn't take to your fainting couches just yet. The chances of this patent turning into a commonplace practice are somewhere between slim and none. If I'm wrong, I'll eat the next fruitcake that arrives in the mail.

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir Kamin likes to exchange and regift unwanted items on the sly, the way Miss Manners intended. She blogs near-daily about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and posts all day long about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.

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