Amazon introduces pre-emptive returns for unwanted gifts

If you are still enjoying your bounty of great Christmas gifts, keep having fun. But if you got a couple of duds — and are currently joining the throng of sellers on eBay — Amazon has an idea that may stave off disappointment in future years.

In our busy modern and connected lives, plenty of people use Amazon to buy gifts to ship directly to friends and relatives who live elsewhere. Such buyers fall into three main categories: those who stick to the automated wishlist feature; those who chose carefully and creatively to come up with amazingly appropriate and thoughtful gifts; and those who try this but fail.

It’s the last category that’s targeted in an Amazon patent, applied for in 2006 but only recently granted. The patent is for a system using “gift conversion” logic to allow users to set up filters for unwanted gifts: anything bought to be shipped to them that triggers the filter can be replaced with a specific similarly-priced gift, an item chosen at random from a wishlist, or the equivalent value in vouchers.

The patent suggests such a system could have a wide variety of filters, from specific products, to wide categories (no wollen clothes, no slushy movies), to format replacements (VHS gifts to be replaced by the same title on DVD.) It would also be possible to automatically replace any gift that has already been purchased by the user on Amazon. And users can create category limits: for example, a fresher at university who fears everyone is going to buy him textbooks could limit their total Amazon haul to five textbooks.

But it’s an example known as rule 501 in the patent that’s caused the most controversy, thanks to the example user title of ” Convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred.” Whether the system spots a user ID, a billing address or even card details known to match Aunt Mildred, that gift is never leaving Amazon’s headquarters. And why does our hypothetical recipient need to resort to such tactics: “The user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user.”

The system even includes customization depending on exactly how honest the recipient wants to be about such tactics. It’s possible to have the system e-mail Aunt Mildred to politely explain that the gift has been converted, and even give a reason why. But it’s also possible to send an automated lie, thanking her for the lovely present that she sent.

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