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Many happy returns policies 

Those horribly un-stylish Christmas gifts you received have to go somewhere, and Denise McDonald will be forgiving.

You are moving. You're packing and digging and cleaning. You find a pair of knee-high wool cross-country ski socks, tag still on, with a receipt. The slip says they were bought in 1994.

Do you...

a) toss them in the trash?

b) put them in a bag for charity?

c) trot off to the store and return said mouldering socks?

If you answered c), while I admire your delightful, fuck-it-all glee, you rank as the craziest return-shopper ever in the history of Halifax's Mountain Equipment Co-op store.

And yes, it's a true story. "The guy came in and said, 'I never used these,'" says MEC manager Denise McDonald.

Even crazier? McDonald took them back and refunded his cash.

"If you haven't used them," says McDonald, "it doesn't matter that they are 15 years old, really."

The sock dude wasn't a Christmas season returner. But he's a litmus for the lunacy of holiday's limbo week between Christmas and New Year's and the week after, when the world is scrambling to the shops with the worst of the season in hand.

Look around you---they are everywhere: dissatisfied gift-getters, desperate to right the Christmas wrongs of loved ones misaligned with reality or merely desperate to fill a box. (Last-minute Christmas shoppers often, McDonald says, play it safe and buy the biggest size. "Or the smaller, because it will be more flattering. It depends how they want to look at it.")

Here's where people coming in with returns this week---and through the year---commit sins against well-established (if unwritten) rules of retail etiquette, according to McDonald:

a) They say they haven't worn when it's been washed or haven't used it when it's "trashed."

b) They are one of those customers that returns everything as a matter of course.

c) They return something because they are unhappy with it, then buy the exact same thing all over again. ("If their shoes are too big their feet are probably moving...and they will get a hole on the inside of the heel," McDonald says, by way of example. "And then they will say, 'These are no good!' But really they should be getting a different shoe or a different size." Um, except they don't.)

McDonald will---in all three cases---still take the item back. Sometimes she does it even when MEC doesn't sell the item.

"I have done that," she says. "It's just a lot easier than to argue and have the person storm out. If it's not an expensive item---if it were an expensive item I wouldn't do that---but sometimes it's easier to say, you're right, here's your 25 or 50 bucks.

"It goes against your values," McDonald says, "because you know it's not legit. But when you step back and look at the big scheme of things, it's one person."

That's the out-of-whack-with-the-retail-world MEC returns rationale---no time limit (that's obvious with those past-the-statute-of-returns-limitations socks though, isn't it?), no receipt (since it's a co-op, all shoppers are members and every purchase is kept on file), no arguments.

McDonald calls it a "liberal" return policy. "It serves us well because it demonstrates that we provide great service."

But it doesn't stop people being on the defensive when they come in to make a return.

And I get that.

I returned a DVD two weeks ago---How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The first time I stuck it in my laptop it just went black. At the counter, I explained the deal and handed over the receipt and case, all official-like. The DVD had a deep scratch---practically a gash. The employee asked if it was shaking around in the case when I bought it. I didn't think so, I said. Usually, he said, that's what happens.

My head was spinning---I didn't do it! I swear! It wasn't me! All I did was carry it home in my bag! No violent jerking! No dropping it into the cutlery drawer!

In the end, it was a problem-free exchange (thank you, Spring Garden Road HMV). But in other cases, and too often, cash-jockeys can't make an exchange and you have to speak to a manager. By not giving the employee enough power, McDonald points out, companies practically force people to become aggressive. And I'm not talking about 15-year-old dried-out ski socks.

The socks, by the way, were raffled off to staff. McDonald doesn't know what happened to their former brief owner.


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