Christmas gifts that may end up on the return pile

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Picking the right gift is never easy, but there are some gifts that have a higher risk of being more unwelcome than others—and not just the obvious oddballs that end up on worst-gift list, like a tacky Christmas sweater or a belly button lint brush.

Shoppers who returned gifts last year took back about 10 percent of gifts received, according to the National Retail Federation. Nearly three-quarters of Americans think it's OK to regift, too, with a third saying they did so last year, per an American Express survey.

Not that you, the giver, will ever know. In a 2011 AmEx survey, 59 percent of shoppers said they wouldn't tell a loved one that their gift was returned. To limit the odds of an unhappy return, give these risky gifts carefully.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 22 Dec. 2013

Pets
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Animal welfare advocates have long cautioned against giving pets, concerned that many of the unexpected animals could end up in shelters come New Year's. It's not always dire, though. A new study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that 86 percent of people who received a pet as a gift still had that pet.

"It increased their bond to the pet, their attachment," said Emily Weiss, vice president of shelter research and development for the ASPCA.

But it's still not a gift for everyone. Successful giving usually occurs between parents and children, or romantic partners, Weiss said—with the key element being that the giver knows the recipient well enough to know that a pet is wanted generally and that the one chosen will be an appropriate match.

"These aren't, in most cases, people coming to a dinner party and bringing a pet as a gift for the hostess," she said.

To increase the odds of a successful gift, keep in mind that most pet stores won't have open hours on Christmas Day. Including food, treats and toys, as well as a collar and leash for a puppy, or litter box and litter for kitten, can help smooth the transition, Weiss said.

Fashionable clothing
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Clothing and shoes were the most-returned items according to a 2012 MarketTools survey, with 62 percent of consumers saying they brought something back for a refund or exchange.

"Especially with a fashion gift, there's a high chance there's going to be a miss," said Manish Chandra, CEO of clothing resale app Poshmark.

Chandra says the service tends to see a jump in listings after the holiday, in part as consumers unload garments that were the wrong size, color or style. Another problem is receiving, say, a red cardigan when you already have one.

Givers might have better luck with accessories such as jewelry, which at least eliminates the wrong-fit risk, he said. It's also worth considering how picky the recipient is.

"I would be more reluctant to give clothing to women than to men," Chandra said. For a fashionista, giving a gift card for a favorite brand might also be a better option than picking over the racks yourself.

Toys
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Even Santa isn't infallible. Toys, games and other hobby items are the second-most-returned item, with 16 percent of consumers saying they had brought one back, according to the 2012 MarketTools survey.

"The main reason—and this is going to sound ridiculous—is that it's not on the child's wish list," said Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimetoPlayMag.com. "Grandparents are a big culprit of that. They pick out what they want to give."

Some of the returns are parent vetoes, particularly when the gift-giver has picked an item that's recommended for a different age. That's a safety concern: Toys intended for an older child might include features that could be hazardous for a younger one, such as sharper edges or small parts that could be ingested.

"If I see that toy, it's not getting opened," Silver said. "No discussion, it's going back."

If children are on your gift-giving list, talk to their parents about what they have asked Santa for that's an approved buy, said Silver. Failing that, research what options are popular and age appropriate before hitting the toy aisle—and include a gift receipt, just in case.

Gift cards
Barnes & Noble gift cards
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Buying a gift card can help you avoid some risky purchases, as recipients can use it for exactly the dress or video game they want.

But cards can also be big misses if you pick a brand the recipient doesn't frequent, said Judd Lillestrand, founder of gift card evaluator ScripSmart. (That's why there's a thriving secondhand gift card market at sites including eBay and GiftCardGranny.com.) Cards from smaller merchants may still be subject to some of the fees that bigger retailers have nixed, including inactivity fees or fees to replace a lost card, he said.

Gifters may even inadvertently bestow a soon-to-be-worthless card. If a retailer large or small files for bankruptcy protection or prepares to go out of business, it often quickly stops accepting gift cards, said Lillestrand. ScriptSmart's directory warns shoppers away from 37 brands it deems financially unstable.

For a better gift, check out the terms and conditions before buying to make sure they're friendly to the recipient. And of course, consider what brands the recipient favors, said Lillestrand—a gift card is still a better option that an ugly holiday sweater.