The gifts that keep on regifting

By Jolayne Houtz, Seattle Times – 12/26/2004 – 12:00am


Did you get exactly what you wanted for Christmas? Where do you plan to put two glass-domed cheeseboards? And what to do with that cactus-shaped candelabra from your sister?

Don’t return it. Regift it.

It’s an increasingly popular solution for gift overload: Pass along a gift you’ve received as new to someone else. Millions use this gift-giving shortcut on the sly, even if they feel a little shame-faced about it.

“I don’t know if I can tell you because what if my mother-in-law reads it?” asked a Medina woman who didn’t want to be named.

She regifts things that “are too good for Goodwill. They’re not for you, but they’re nice for someone else.” But her mother-in-law disapproves. “She’ll tell me: ‘You can return it, but it’s not a pass-along.’ ”

Now some of America’s most venerable etiquette experts are saying — with just the faintest whiff of disdain — that it is acceptable to regift, as long as you do it carefully.

An American Express survey last year found one-third of shoppers admitted to regifting at least once — and that shoppers with household incomes of more than $75,000 are more likely to regift than those making less.

The term “regifting” was popularized a decade ago in an episode of the TV show “Seinfeld.” Today, there’s eBay, where you can quickly unload unwanted gifts. And starting next month, you can regift through a new Web site — www.regift.net — billed as a gift exchange, auction and bidding service where you can trade what you got for what you really want.

The notion of regifting is abhorrent to some. Others think of it as recycling, practical and thrifty. They gleefully dedicate closet and drawer space to stash their regiftables. Regifters avoid long return lines, save money and reduce clutter and consumption.

“I hate to be known as the regifter,” said Amy Eng of Renton, who reluctantly admits to doing it “very occasionally, with something brand new,” like a gift basket of fancy soaps and lotions.

“Someone actually spent time looking for this for me — but isn’t it better to give it away than have it sit on a shelf?”

The Emily Post Institute, Letitia Baldrige and the syndicated columnist Miss Manners all give their conditional blessing to the practice of regifting, if you follow the rules:

Rule No. 1: Never accidentally regift something to the person who gave it to you

Julia Cousineau of Tacoma created a system “more complex than an astrological chart” to avoid this most egregious of regifting faux pas.

Using a spreadsheet, she logged gifts she received by noting who gave it to her, for what occasion — and who else might enjoy getting it.

Cousineau, who works as an auditor at a leasing company, said none of her friends have caught on. “I think it’s almost a smart thing for people to do.”

For a neighbor, she filled a large fruit basket with stuffed animals and lotions for Christmas. For an elderly friend who collected crystal, she passed on a piece of Waterford crystal “that would have just sat on my shelf. It thrilled me to be able to add it to her collection.”

Deborah King of Seattle’s Final Touch Finishing School said she discourages regifting, but hears more often now from clients wondering about the ethics and etiquette involved in doing it.

She tells them to simply hang on to gifts, even duplicates, in case the original wears out.

If you must regift, King said, send the gift far outside the circle of people from which it came — out of state, preferably. Cousineau is now a reformed regifter. “It was becoming exhausting … keeping track of everything,” she said.

Still, the temptation is strong to start again — she and her daughter recently moved, and the housewarming gifts are stacking up.

Rule No. 2: Leave no trace

Check the gift for telltale signs of regifting. Is there an inscription on the flyleaf of a book? Your wedding date engraved on the bottom of a vase? A long-past expiration date on a box of treats?

The idea isn’t to get rid of your junk. Rather, you should regift just the best stuff, gifts the new recipient truly would enjoy.

Eng received a food basket last Christmas that “felt like a regift — it was just out of character for the giver.”

She could never bring herself to eat anything from it. “Regifting food,” she said, “is not a good thing.”

Even regifts require all-new packaging — no used gift bags, damaged boxes or rumpled tissue paper. Check the item carefully to make sure there isn’t a gift card or something else tucked inside to give you away.

Jeanne Hamilton runs the North Carolina-based Web site Etiquettehell.com and collects stories from readers of regifting gone awry.

She once heard from a reader who had received a deck of cards as part of a wedding gift. She regifted it without opening the box and didn’t learn until later that there was a $100 bill hidden inside.

Once you receive a gift, it’s yours to do with as you see fit, Hamilton said. The giver no longer has a right to ask what you did with it. And the new recipient doesn’t need to know where you got it, she said.

Other etiquette mavens disagree on that point.

Sue Fox, author of “Etiquette for Dummies” and “Business Etiquette for Dummies,” said it’s deceitful and rude to leave the impression you shopped for a gift if you didn’t.

“I let people know openly,” said Fox, based in Los Gatos, Calif. When she moved recently, she found a bunch of costume jewelry she hadn’t worn, mostly from her mother. She gave it to a friend with preteen girls, but she told both her friend and her mother what she’d done.

“I’m not stodgy and old-fashioned, but it is a pretty sensitive issue,” she said.

Rule No. 3: Remember to thank the giver sincerely for the gift — even if it’s destined for regifting

Dawn DeGroot is a Seattle etiquette consultant who teaches people how to make proper introductions and the correct location for the salad fork at the table. She is also an enthusiastic regifter.

“Oh, I have regifted for years. At my house, it’s called the third drawer,” she said — a dresser drawer where she stashes chocolates, jams and other “totally regiftable” items.

DeGroot’s top regifting turnaround time: 18 minutes. A box of chocolates came in the front door from one person and left out the back door with someone else who was on her way to a dinner party and needed a hostess gift.

DeGroot runs Mrs. DeGroot’s Wallingford Charm school. She sees nothing incongruous in being both a regifter and a teacher of social graces.

It’s the spirit of receiving the gift that matters most, she said. “I am gracious and full of grace when I get a gift … every single gift you get cannot be a perfect fit.”

You have to consider your intent in regifting, DeGroot said — is it to get rid of junk or to celebrate a relationship by giving a gift? “Etiquette is based on being practical, thoughtful and having intentions that are honest,” she said.

Rule No. 4: Some things are not regiftable

There once was a bride- and groom-to-be, both writers, who requested an expensive, handsomely bound dictionary on their gift registry.

A wedding guest bought the dictionary and inscribed it with a personal message.

Three months later, the guest was browsing in a used bookstore and came across — yes — the very same inscribed dictionary, peddled for cash before the ink was dry on the thank-you note.

The guest promptly bought the dictionary back — and regifted it to the couple on their one-year anniversary.

Both parties were at fault in this story: the newlyweds for being so blatantly mercenary, and the gift-giver for rubbing it in, said Hamilton of Etiquettehell.com, who wrote about the incident in a book she co-wrote, “Bridezilla: True Tales from Etiquette Hell.”

A regifter’s primary concern should be making sure no one’s feelings are hurt, she said.

King, the Seattle-based etiquette consultant, thinks the rise of regifting is the result of gift-givers not putting enough time or thought into seeking just the right gift for people.

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