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Amazon Patents a Bad Gift Prevention System

Amazon's bad gift prevention system would let customers return gifts before they are ever ship out of the warehouse—and ruin Christmas too.

As many as 30 percent of online gifts are returned. That's a serious cost to online retailers especially if they offer free shipping. So it makes sense that the biggest among them, Amazon, would devote some mental muscle to a solution to the return conundrum, and patent it for themselves of course.

Amazon has developed a bad gift prevention system that lets customers return gifts before they are ever shipped out of the warehouse, according to a patent filling.

Technologically advanced, somewhat offensive, and definitely useful, Amazon's "gift conversion logic" might transform online retail—and suck the heart out of gift giving. The patent filing states a few obvious truths in defense of enhancing online shopping with instant return.

"As in other gift-giving situations, it sometimes occurs that gifts purchased on-line do not meet the needs or tastes of the gift recipient. For example, the recipient may already have the item and may not need another one of that same item."


That's actually in a U.S. Patent Office patent filing. Anyway, here's how the innovation works. You set up rules in your Amazon profile about the kinds of gifts you don't want. You can say, "no Jackass DVDs," "no size XXL pajamas," "no books already purchased," or anything else you don't want. "No gifts given during the holidays" is an option cited in the filing. You can even single out terrible gift givers, something to the effect of "no gifts from Aunt Mildred, or Jeff Bezos."

If any of the rules are met, then Amazon will "convert" your bad gift into something on your wish list, or some other product based on those rules, like say an Amazon gift certificate. It could be automatic, or the company could send you an email asking for confirmation. Amazon will even send a thank you note to the unknowingly slighted giver if you want.

This image is from the patent filing, an example of how you might choose to use the gift converter to quietly snub Uncle Bob.

This is all very efficient, but it misses the spirit of gift giving in so many ways. I'm not saying Amazon shouldn't do this, because the approach makes sense (especially for incorrect clothing sizes or items you already own), but there are several flaws. The most obvious is that systems like this turn the act of gift giving into an exercise shopping for someone else. What's the value of a gift if the recipient won't even give it the chance of seeing it in person?

"Gift conversion" reinforces a trend that just about all online suggestion features perpetuate: replacing surprise with your own old habits again and again. If you only buy what you think you want, you won't be exposed to as many new things. (Eli Pariser, founder of Move On, has a provocative explanation of the dangers of machine curation.) Preventing any gift not on your wish list—a potential application of this new Amazon feature—could turn all Amazon gifts to you into a gift certificate. Then what's the point?

The other problem is that both parties have to be Amazon shoppers with online accounts; for now, the feature is unique to Amazon. The evolution of this is probably that your Facebook account could store this "do not accept" list of bad gifts and all online retailers would check to see if you are about to get a dud.

A more useful, and less offensive plan might be to let gift buyers check a "don't buy me this item" list before making a purchase, it would be quiet, it would be useful, and it would preserve the purpose of gifts.

I'm pretty sure I don't want a cheetah print Snuggie, but I know I don't want to preempt the gift choices of my friends and family. If they think I'll like it, I'll give it a try. Maybe Amazon's new feature can have a setting: "Buy me something I never knew existed."

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