Amazon has patented a way to let you return gifts before you even receive them.

Amazon’s innovation, not ready for this Christmas season, includes an option to “Convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred,” the patent says. “For example, the user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user.” In other words, the consumer could keep an online list of lousy gift-givers whose choices would be vetted before anything ships.

The benefit to the receiver is clear.  The benefit to Amazon is even bigger:

The proposal has also brought into focus a very costly part of the e-retailing business model: Up to 30 percent of purchases are returned, and the cost of getting rejected gifts back across the country and onto shelves has online retailers scrambling for ways to reduce these expenses.

To the giver?  Think of it as weakly dominating a gift card.  It’s a gift card with a default.  If gifts are better that gift cards because they allow you to show the recipient something they never would have found/considered on their own, then this system achieves that without the risk of it going badly.  Perhaps that allows you to take even more risks with your gifts.  Not everyone is happy though.

“This idea totally misses the spirit of gift giving,” Post said. “The point of gift giving is to allow someone else to go through that action of buying something for us. Otherwise, giving a gift just becomes another one of the world’s transactions.”

Amazon’s system gives users a “Gift Conversion Wizard” through which they can program various rules like “no gifts made of wool” or  “Convert any gift from Aunt Mildred to a gift certificate, but only after checking with me.”  But what will the giver be told?

Most cleverly – or deviously, depending on your attitude toward this sort of manipulation – the gift giver will be none the wiser: “The user may also be provided with the option of sending a thank you note for the original gift,” according to the patent, “even though the original gift is converted.” (Alternatively, a recipient could choose to let the giver know he has exchanged the item for something else.)

Casquette cast:  Courtney Conklin Knapp.