TAMPA — The morning after Christmas, the Riess family arrived at West-Shore Plaza toting five shopping bags, a men's garment hanger and at least a dozen receipts.
The family that returns together, well, you guessed it. They never pretend to actually like that reindeer sweater.
Even Santa's elves have off years. No matter how many catalog items are circled, wish lists swapped or shopping links e-mailed — with SKU numbers, for goodness sake — the holidays aren't complete without that gift for which "thank you" really doesn't say it all.
Some families suffer in silence. The Riess' pass out receipts.
"You can't just keep something because it would hurt someone's feelings," said 57-year-old Stephanie Riess of St. Petersburg, whose mother reminds the family when they start opening gifts that she has kept the cashier slips. "Everything costs so much money."
So she took no offense when her 26-year-old son, Mike, returned to Macy's about $350 of Christmas booty not to his liking, including a leather blazer, a sweater, a dress shirt, jeans and a belt.
Nor did she want her daughter, Melissa, 22, to hold onto shoes and a dress in the wrong size.
Stephanie also laughed off a morning phone call from her mother. The fleece pants she gave her father for Christmas were too big. The shirts she got her mother were too thin.
Those receipts are forthcoming, too. But an open return policy is a two-way street. Stephanie's shopping bag included a black velour warm-up suit, a gift from her parents. She hesitated, ever so slightly, to explain.
"Luckily, it wasn't my size," she said.
The Riesses left the mall with fewer shopping bags and lots of store credits. The sales weren't generally much better than the day before Christmas, so the gifts they returned will keep giving in the new year.
The family is hardly the only one to engage in the art of the Christmas gift return.
At a St. Petersburg Toys "R" Us on Friday, Sara Sayasane, 28, waited in line to return an alarm clock given to her daughter, Brianna Clapp, 8, for Christmas. She already had a Hello Kitty one that matched the theme of her room.
Brianna's favorite present this year was the movie Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. But Brianna told so many people she wanted the movie that she ended up with three copies. Sayasane cringed but hit the slammed Tyrone Square Mall to return the extras.
"I try to avoid coming the day after Christmas," Sayasane said. "Next year we're going to have to make a list."
Just as in war and politics, the trick is to not let a gift gone wrong become personal. Tony and Michelle Santiago of Tampa watch their grandchildren's expressions carefully as they open each gift.
This year, the 2-year-old was really into a Dora doll, and less enthralled by a Fisher-Price airport set, which the Tampa couple decided to return to Target the next day.
"We're pretty careful about keeping everything together," said Michelle, 47. "If I sense it may be an iffy thing, I'll put the box aside."
These days, stores make it easy to return unwanted gifts. No receipt? Store credit is often an option. Some retailers can even look up the original purchase price if you know the credit card number used.
Many stores don't require the tags to be on the item. And anyone who has used a wedding registry knows that you can return a blender purchased at one store to another that carries the same item — often with no questions asked.
Times staff writer Stephanie Garry contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more shopping news, see the Deal Divas at www.blogs.tampabay.com/deals.