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Regifter's delight

New software promises to solve a holiday dilemma

IT'S A RITE OF CHRISTMAS. A box comes to your front door. Almost before you open it, you know you don't want what's inside - a fruitcake, slippers, a bright XXXL fleece jacket you can't wear because you'll never weigh the 350 lbs required to fill it.

 

Obviously, there's just one solution: regifting, a holiday vice that some 35 percent of Americans (and 38 percent of Democrats) engage in, according to a new Zogby poll. But how?

The holiday edition of the popular manual, ''The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook,'' devotes an entire entry to the mechanics of regifting. (It appears between chapters on how to fend off unwanted kisses and ''oncoming reindeer.'') ''Do not lie,'' the handbook advises, ''just thank the giver for the thought,'' because that is what really counts. Then proceed to regift, remembering always to unwrap the present and check that it doesn't contain ''a hidden card, monogramming, or giver- or recipient-specific information.''

Surely there must be a more 21st-century approach to unloading unwanted presents.

And indeed there is. William Dodd, an inventor from Georgia, has just received US patent no. 6,633,849 for a software program that allows you to forward undesired gifts electronically.

Here's how it works: Cousin Mabel purchases the aforementioned fleece jacket from a participating retailer and lets you know about it via e-mail, using Dodd's software. In true gameshow fashion, you can then either accept the gift, exchange it for other merchandise from the retailer, or pass it along to someone on your own shopping list as if it were a gift from you. The great regift has suddenly become a lot easier.

Or has it? Regifting the old-fashioned way meant Mabel would probably never find out that you gave the dreamcoat to an ex. Electronic gifting and regifting, however, means that a merchant using the system could allow givers to track the fate of their gifts, right?

''Oh, that could certainly happen,'' says Christophe Kremault, vice president of marketing at Richfx, a New York-based firm that specializes in electronic merchandising and owns Dodd's patent. Kremault adds: ''The level of disclosure needs to be worked out between the customer and the business. And I'm not going to tell you the best way to do it because I don't know.''

At this point, Kremault also doesn't know which companies, if any, will be interested in using the service. But he imagines, for example, that retailers could reward regular regifters with the shopping equivalent of frequent-flyer miles. Theoretically, if you reject enough fruitcakes, you could win a trip to Maui.

But what happens to the fleece jacket, and the fruitcakes? In the brave new world of electronic regifting, unwanted presents could mutate into a species of zombie gifts that sleepwalk though cyberspace, moving from one e-mail box to the next, staying unclaimed for eternity. With shoppers spending a projected $17 billion online this year, the possibility for gifts that keep giving, or worse, gifts that won't die, may grow with each passing holiday season.

In the end, electronic regifting may leave the old gift-giving and -getting etiquette and ethics questions unresolved while raising some new ones.

When, for instance, does that nomadic fruitcake turn into spam?

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