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Penguin choir seeks a harmonious home

Online venues prosper as people sell unwanted gifts. But an etiquette expert is appalled.

January 13, 2008|Stacy St. Clair | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Kathi Nelson knew the moment she unwrapped the Christmas present from her mother that she wouldn't keep it.

A penguin figurines smiled up at her, playing 25 holiday classics -- as well as standards such as "Blue Danube" and "Beautiful Dreamer" -- in four-part harmony.

Her 69-year-old mother had purchased the penguins, which retail for $44 from QVC, despite her daughter's repeated insistence that she had no more room for yuletide decorations.

"I also thought they were kind of tacky," Nelson said. "They weren't my taste."

She didn't want to hurt her mother's feelings by refusing the gift on the spot. And without a receipt, she had no way of returning it.

Nelson opted to sell the figurines online, an increasingly popular option for those who want to cash in on unwanted or unneeded gifts. By unloading disappointing presents in cyberspace, sellers can skirt exchange policies and avoid the awkwardness that can come with telling loved ones that their gifts were duds.

"The entire month of January is the reselling season," said Marsha Collier, author of "EBay for Dummies." "It really picks up the second week in January, because people have no reason to regift unwanted presents at that point. They're just getting back to work and to their high-speed [Internet] connections, so they start selling."

A recent Harris Interactive survey -- not a scientific poll -- found that 83% of U.S. adults receive unwanted holiday gifts. Nearly half of those people regift or resell unwelcome items.

Nelson joined those ranks Dec. 31 when she posted an advertisement for the Mr. Christmas Animated Musical Penguin Players on Craigslist.

Nelson, a special-education teacher, found the collectible such a departure from her own taste that she couldn't set a price. She promised to give it to the best -- and probably first -- offer.

"If I can get $25 for it, I'd be happy," she said. "I'll take what I can get."

In the days since Christmas, Chicago-area residents have been hocking everything -- color printers, Jessica Simpson body lotion, high-end cellphones and Michael Vick footballs -- freely admitting the goods are holiday misfires.

Many ads state the items are being sold anonymously to spare the feelings of relatives or friends. A few, however, agreed to discuss their decision because the unsuccessful gift-giver lived out of state or didn't read newspapers.

Naperville, Ill., resident Brandon Gittelman said he received four iTunes gift cards totaling $150 for Christmas. The cards are the perfect present for a suburban teenager with an iPod -- but he doesn't have one.

"When I opened them, I smiled and said, 'Oh, thank you!' " said Gittelman, 18. "I said it with a big smile on my face, but at the same time I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do with these?' "

With the cards offered on Craigslist at a small discount, Gittelman intends to earmark at least half the money for a new camera so he can pursue his interest in photojournalism. If no one meets his price, he says, he'll give them to friends.

Whatever happens, he won't share his decision with the grandparents, uncle and pals who gave him the cards. "I know the thought was there," he said. "They bought something they thought I would like."

Niles, Ill., resident Manan Parikh sold a pair of $180 Bose headphones online less than 24 hours after posting his ad. He plans to use the $100 he received to purchase a video-game console.

"The headphones were nice, but I realized I just didn't need them after using them a few times," Parikh said. "I'm going to college in the fall and will have a lot of free time, so getting an Xbox or [PlayStation 3] makes sense."

Parikh, 17, received the pricey gift from an aunt who saw him admiring the headphones in a store shortly before Christmas. He hasn't told her of his online transaction, but he doubts she would care. "I guess she would think I'm old enough to make my own decisions," he said.

Some sellers, though, worry about their loved one's reaction to a sold present.

Adam Bagy of Chicago has received $200 in Dave & Buster's gift certificates from his father, who lives in St. Louis, for three years running. He went to the establishment once but decided the restaurant -- with its video games and sports bar -- wasn't his style.

He doesn't have the heart to tell his dad that he has no use for the certificates, so he sells the cards online after Christmas at a 25% discount. He will use this year's windfall to replace a recently stolen iPhone.

"My dad would probably be a little perturbed at me," Bagy said. "But, whatever. He would never use them either."

To prevent gift-givers from discovering the resale, some turn to consignment shops to advertise undesired presents in online auctions. Stores such as Chicago's Edrop-off Express place the items on EBay under their names, making it difficult to trace the gift back to the recipient.

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