Tech gift returns rule post-holiday shopping

Julia Quittman went straight to the return desk at the Emeryville, Calif., CompUSA the day after Christmas, hard drive under her arm. But like many other recipients of technology gifts across the country this holiday season, she was there to swap.

“He gave me a 60GB drive for Christmas, but I was really looking for a 100GB drive,” Quittman said of the gift from her husband, Peter. “This one doesn’t have enough oomph for the larger system I’m building. I need one that can really handle my large database.”

Mr. Quittman acknowledged sheepishly, “I’m not very technology-minded.”

A few thousand miles away, shopper Lynnette Gibson noticed a man hauling a DVD player through one of the return lines at a Grand Island, Neb., Wal-Mart.

When the customer service employee asked why he was returning it, the man replied, “There’s nothing wrong with it. I just got two of them for Christmas.”

Perhaps we’re getting smarter about our tech product shopping, or just more particular. An overview of customer visits to the return desks of computer stores across the country revealed similar scenes. Many gift recipients were simply trading up, or exchanging duplicates.

An unscientific survey by PC World of tech stores around the country in the days after Christmas reveals short lines and few complaints. For example, at the Best Buy in Cambridge, Mass., two days after Christmas, the action was at the check-out registers: More people were buying than returning.

“We just haven’t seen a lot of returns,” says Jim Mailloux, a sales manager at the store in the CambridgeSide Galleria. “We have seen people exchanging CDs, DVDs, and software for other titles, but no one’s been returning the big items.”

The store nearly sold out of DVD players on Christmas Eve, Mailloux says, and only had two models available for purchase from Sunday until Thursday. Only a few of those players have been returned to the store, and most of those were exchanged for better models, he says.

TiVO, MP3 players, digital cameras, and video game consoles were the hot items this year, Mailloux says. “We sold a lot of PlayStations and Xboxes, and not one has come back to us. If you get one of those, you’re probably pretty excited.”

At an Office Depot store on the other side of the country, in Bellevue, Wash., assistant manager Charles Burnham reports that printers and scanners were the big holiday gift choices – and then accounted for most returns.

“Our big Christmas sellers were Hewlett-Packard scanners and Microtek printers,” Burnham says. He also sold a whole bunch of digital cameras.

Coming in for exchange or return at the Office Depot was a smattering of software, Burnham says. A shopping cart parked next to the customer service counter was half filled with joystick controllers, a copy of Intuit’s Turbo Tax program, and a smattering of pocket organizers. Palms also made the after-Christmas returns list, he added.

In fact, next door at CompUSA, Ross Taylor stood at the customer service counter, next to another man who was returning a Que CD-RW drive. Taylor exchanged a Handspring Visor he’d bought for his wife.

“It didn’t hold a charge, so I brought it back,” says Taylor, one of the principals at Cunea Design in Snohomish, Wash.

“I came back to exchange it,” Taylor said while walking out to his car with the new $250 model under his arm. “I should have had them turn it on before I left. If this one doesn’t work, I’m really going to be upset.”

The flow of returns the day after Christmas was not overwhelming at CompUSA in Emeryville, says Mike Carter, general manager. And that followed one of the busiest holiday sales seasons at one of the chain’s busiest stores.

“Christmas Eve was an outstanding sales day for us. We were busy until we closed,” Carter says. “In fact, we had to stay open an extra hour to accommodate everyone who wanted to shop.”

Of returns, he says software games lead the list. “Either the person seems to already own it, or some games are being returned because they are a little too extreme for the child that received it as a gift. However, most people are exchanging, not just returning,” Carter says.

That was the case 3000 miles away in Framingham, Mass., too. Parents chauffeured their pre-teens to the CompUSA to swap their software and game accessories for other merchandise.

Whitney Moorman, 12, queued up to exchange her CD-ROM The Sims Hot Date Expansion Pack, because the game she found under her Christmas tree didn’t have a serial number. When she tried to download the Electronic Arts product, it wouldn’t work without the number. She opened the replacement package right in the store to be sure it contained the essential number.

“This has happened to us before,” says Mrs. Moorman. Whitney already has The Sims, which allows gamers to build, decorate, and furnish virtual homes, but was excited to get the Hot Date Expansion because, “the people can go outside and do stuff. This is the only computer game I got this Christmas, and I’d like to play it with my friends,” she says.

Thirteen-year old Sam Harte brought back the Monsters, Inc., GameBoy Advance game that his Grandmother gave him because it wasn’t compatible with his regular Nintendo GameBoy system. “I’ve had my GameBoy for a couple of years,” Harte says. But instead of exchanging Monsters, Inc., a THQ adventure product based on the recent Disney film, for another game, he wants store credit so he can save toward buying more memory for his PC.

Steve Montecalvo’s brother played it safe when he shopped for the 13-year-old’s Christmas gift. When he couldn’t decide between two different gaming joysticks, he bought them both. Montecalvo was returning the Logitech WingMan Extreme Digital 3D joystick and keeping the WingMan Strike Force 3D version because he says that it has “a cool force feedback feature.”

Not only teens were in the short lines at the Framingham CompUSA, however. Rhonda Michaels exchanged a Verto GeForce2 MX200 card that her husband received from work colleagues who knew of his passion for computer games.

“He had been wanting a PlayStation system since they came out, so I finally got him one for Christmas, and that means he doesn’t need this anymore,” she says. With the return credit, Michaels was eyeing a game for his PlayStation 2, which has the very adult capability of doubling as both a CD and DVD player. “He likes driving games and flight simulators,” she says, sounding not unlike the kids in line with her at the returns counter.

(Reporting for this story was done by Anne McDonald of, and contributors Liane Gouthro, Jennifer O’Neill, Joel Strauch, and Frank Thorsberg.)