People always say that it’s the thought that counts when it comes to gift-giving…until you’ve left the room, at which point they start working out when they can return a dud for something they actually want.
According to research from Optoro (a company that helps retailers process and resell returns), shoppers return nearly $70 billion worth of purchases during the holiday season. Considering the National Retail Foundation’s prediction that retailers should bring in around $630 billion total during the 2015 holidays, that’s a significant hit.
And that may not fully express how many bad gifts are out there. In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that 42 percent of women returned holiday gifts from their husbands (who should theoretically have at least some insider gifting knowledge). The same study reported that 17 percent of recipients planned to donate an unwanted present, 13 percent planned to regift one and 10 percent would simply throw the bad gift away. A GameStop survey indicated that 98 percent of their customers had received at least one holiday gift that they’d rather return.
While everyone hopes their gifts will be a hit with friends and loved ones, it’s clearly not always easy to pick the perfect present. That’s why we’re offering the most important gift guide you’ll get all season: The What Not to Buy list.
Athletes’ Most-Returned: Workout Clothing/Footwear
For that annoying friend who always manages to squeeze in a run, it seems like high-end workout clothing or a new pair of sneakers would be a no-brainer, right?
Not according to Cathy Sparks, vice president of global direct-to-consumer retail concepts for Nike. Over 20 years with the company, Sparks says she’s seen “people exchange unwanted clothing items for ones that better suit their routine or style. The same can be true for footwear.” Personal preference is one of the main reasons Sparks cites for the higher return rates, but fit and color preferences also make these items harder to get right.
If you’re not sure which product your athletic friend would love, Sparks recommends accessories that match the athlete’s preferred sport. “Hats, socks, and other accessories are rarely returned,” she notes. She also suggests checking out consumer reviews and opting for the most highly rated items.
Of course there’s also always the tried and true option: a gift card. Sparks notes that at some retailers, gift cards include a built-in charity component (at Nike, 1 percent of online and in-store gift card sales in the U.S. go to SHAPE America to help create Active Schools in the U.S.), something recipients may be especially thankful for at the holidays.
Gamers’ Most-Returned: Games They Don’t Want or Already Own
Knowing a recipient’s preferred hobby might only give you a leg up if you share that interest.
Eric Bright, GameStop’s senior director of merchandising, notes that gamers often have very specific interests, which can make them difficult to shop for. “Many gift-givers are not gamers themselves, and may not know or completely understand what video game product or collectible item to choose.”
So they often choose wrong.
Bright encourages shoppers to visit a brick-and-mortar location if they’re unsure to get help from a gamer sales associate. If that’s not an option, however, he recommends “starting with hardware: a PS4, Xbox1 or Wii U.”
If that’s out of your price range, Bright notes that “no game system is complete without a headset to get the best sound effects and online chat.”
Wish your favorite gamer would cut back on the habit? Don’t try to gift them into less time with their console. Bright says that “the vast majority of returns” they hear about at GameStop are from customers “trading in the gift they got—clothing, appliances, even gift cards for other retailers—for the video game product they really wanted.”
Home Decor Fiends’ Most-Returned: Anti-aging Products & Kitsch
It may feel boring to buy the friend with the chic, polished home another candle, but according to Jeanne Tamayo, global lifestyle buyer for Whole Foods, quirky gifts are most likely to go awry.
“Unless it’s handmade, steer clear of the kitschy single coffee mug or funky housewares,” Tamayo says. While those gifts can be fun to open, they tend to “just clutter up cupboards. Something simpler, that will get daily use, is a better option." If you want to make an impression with a design nut, she suggests artisanal products, such as scarves made by a women’s co-op or a pet toy or ornament by a local artist. “They not only show you put thought into the gift, they give back, which recipients love.”
Tamayo also suggests that buyers avoid anti-aging skincare products. “No one ever wants to be told they look old, even if they are!”
She notes that “candles in beautiful glass or metal tins” always go over well—they’re the perfect blend of indulgent and functional.
Jewelry-Lovers’ Most-Returned: Items That Are Too Fancy
Though it’s one of the least-returned product categories overall, even jewelry can fail to dazzle, especially when you go overboard.
Ben Mindich, a multimillion-dollar sales associate in fine jewelry at Saks Fifth Avenue, says returns often occur when “a recipient wonders, Can I justify spending all this money on something I’ll only wear on special occasions? Where can I wear this expensive piece of jewelry?” Extravagant jewelry purchases simply may not work with a recipient’s lifestyle.
Mindich notes that earrings can also be especially tricky: “They can be too long, too short, or too heavy,” and that rings and bracelets may have sizing issues.
Because jewelry items are “very personal,” Mindich suggests that, unless you’re purchasing a generic item, you should “really know the person you’re buying for.” Photos of current jewelry favorites might help guide the process.
If you’d rather go it alone, Mindich says silver jewelry, especially with diamonds and other stones, is perennially popular, as are 18K gold pieces. A personal favorite this season? “The David Yurman silver ‘ice’ collection!”
Foodies’ Most-Returned: Spicy Foods and Olive Oil
Adventurous eaters are always looking for a higher-quality, higher-intensity dining experience, right?
Maybe, but according to Errol Schweizer, global grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Markets, expensive olive oils and foods where the spice factor varies are the least likely to be a hit at the holidays.
The issue with the oil? Transport. “Olive oil is nice when it’s drizzled on food, but not on clothes,” Schweizer says. Since expensive oils almost always come in glass bottles, they may not be a welcome gift. The same principle applies to all food and beverage purchases when the recipient is traveling long distances.
He also recommends avoiding spicy foods, since “everyone has a different personal tolerance of spice.” Some recipients may find a "safer" spicy food too bland, while others might find even a hint of spice “an unpleasant, eye-watering surprise!”
Instead, Schweizer suggests gifting premium versions of food favorites (that are easy to travel with). A medley of premium coffees or cold brew coffee for caffeine-fiends, high-quality fair-trade chocolate for someone with a sweet tooth, or high-end spices and seasonings for just about anyone, should satisfy any foodie.
Cocktail Snobs’ Most-Returned: Glassware
If you’re shopping for a drinker, go straight for the main event: booze.
“We find people return accessories and glassware the most,” says Greg Kimball, vice president of marketing and public relations for Caskers (an online curator of spirits). Though these gifts may enhance the experience, Kimball says most drinkers “would rather have a great bottle of liquor.”
Not sure which great bottle your recipient would like best?
Kimball’s advice: “Choose whiskey.”
“Across the spectrum, whiskeys—scotch, bourbon, rye, etc.—are returned far less than other spirits,” Kimball says. He also says that labels and unique features matter. “Brands that can easily communicate what they offer on the bottle, such as a unique distilling process,” are better-received, Kimball says, since recipients can easily understand the product they’re getting…and choose their next whiskey accordingly.
Everyone’s Most-Returned: Clothes
Still unsure what to choose for the folks on your list? At least avoid the number one holiday-gifting mistake: clothing.
According to a MarketTools report from 2014, clothing was the most returned item overall, boasting a whopping 62 percent of all returns for the holiday season. The Daily Mail survey turned up the same results. The most common reason the wives they surveyed returned clothing gifts: Husbands got the size wrong.
And of course that’s not the only way you can flub clothing; color, style, and how it looks on your recipient versus on the hanger, all factor in.
Which is why, if you must choose clothing (or any of the gifts from this list), make sure of one important factor first: the store’s return policy.