1. Step 1

    Keep the gift in good condition. If you can’t make it to Nordstrom right away to return that pea-green raincoat, don’t use it as a makeshift tarp for the doghouse-keep it in its box in a cool, dry place. By the same token, any item with a cellophane seal (such as a new CD) should remain sealed, lest you destroy its exchange value. As for books, it’s okay to thumb through out of curiosity-but Barnes & Noble may look askance at any torn or folded pages.

  2. Step 2

    See if you can get a receipt. The frustrating thing about holiday gifts is that, by definition, they don’t come with proof of purchase (though some retailers have begun issuing “gift receipts,” which show everything but the price and allow the gift to be returned easily). If you’re sure you won’t hurt the feelings of your friend or relative, ask where he bought the item and offer a good explanation for wanting to return it (“It’s a terrific book, but I have it already;” “Fred just bought me a green raincoat for my birthday,” etc.)

  3. Step 3

    Know the store’s return policy. Once you’ve identified the store where the item originated, you can go on the Web to investigate its return policy (the good thing about chain stores is that a blouse bought at a Gap in Minnesota can just as easily be returned to one in New York). Very few stores will give you folding money, but if you can prove in good faith that the item was purchased there, most will be happy to grant you store credit or a comparable item (the same shirt in a larger size, say).

  4. Step 4

    Be honest. Ideally, whenever you return or exchange a gift, you should give a heads-up to the gift-giver, either by phone or in your thank-you note (“Thanks so much for the suspenders-I hope you don’t mind, but since I’m not a suspenders person I exchanged them for a very nice belt from the same store”). Needless to say, you should also be honest when dealing with the store-don’t attempt to return an item to Macy’s when you know it came from Bloomingdale’s.

  5. Step 5

    Don’t be greedy. Sometimes, it’s more diplomatic to keep a less-than-perfect gift than to exchange it for something you really want. Remember, the aunt who gave you that vase may stop by your house for an unexpected visit-and if it’s not on prominent display (or at least can’t be located in under 10 minutes) her feelings are likely to be hurt.

By Bob Strauss

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