The presents that didn't impress

Stewart Hennessey watches disastrous gifts find their way back to the s hops
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The Independent Culture
"Do I look like a Gloria Estefan fan?" asks James. He is wearing a ripped leather jacket and has mucus-coloured hair. He is on his way into the HMV record shop, on London's Oxford Street, to exchange his Christmas present, an Estefan CD, from his aunt and uncle. "They got me the Mambo Kings last year. It's because they went to the Caribbean, about 10 years ago. They think everyone should love Latin music."

HMV is packed, but not with record buyers. All along the busy street, beneath the jaded Christmas decorations, everybody is partaking in the final, unsung ritual of the festive season - taking back the presents they loathe. Unlike pets, presents often are just for Christmas.

"Somebody brings something back every five seconds," says an HMV manager. "Nobody is buying anything."

Deborah, 36, is unimpressed by her 15-year-old son's gift of a CD by the ragga stars Chaka Demus and Pliers. She intends to change it for a classical CD. "I never liked reggae and I hate rap," she says. "There's some girl at school whose mother is trendyso he thinks I should be."

The most common types of CDs being returned are compilations. "People bring back things like The Best Dance Album In The World all the time," says the floor manager. "A relative or friend knows what kind of music someone likes so they get them a compilation, but a dance fan wants something like the new Portishead album, not the sort of stuff from the charts."

Farther along Oxford Street is the biggest Marks & Spencer store in the world. The returns department is staffed by 50 people during the post-Christmas period. "The first week is the busiest of the year," says Chris, store manager. "About 18,000 people got refunds last week on about 40,000 items. The second week is the second busiest, then it tails off."

Simon is returning fawn trousers and a smart jacket. "I'm on the dole, so I'd rather have the money," he says. "My mother thinks these are good for job interviews, but I only had two interviews last year."

When they return a gift in M&S most people purchase something else in the shop, because they find that their one returned shirt is now worth roughly two of the same in the sales.

Cathy hates her grey cardigan and peach turtleneck jumper from her father, a bank clerk. "He thinks all women dress like the ones in his bank, or if they don't they should," she says. "I've never been a pastels type. I'm going to get some racy underwear and tell him what I changed his present for. But I bet I'll be back again next year."

Underwear is a major problem. "Every year there are returns from young men whose grandmothers have brought them big briefs and older men who have been purchased sexy little Tangos or all-in-ones," says Mark, assistant menswear manager.

The ritual of present-returning is so engrained that presents from previous Christmases are brought back too. "It'll be brand new," says Mark. "And in its packaging. And it'll be something like a pair of socks from two years ago. That's what a lady brought in the other day. Someone gave them to her husband in `92."

A mass of novelty socks, featuring Dennis the Menace, Mickey Mouse or the Snowmen, 3-D cartoon on the side, are also being returned. "Sure, they're a laugh on Christmas morning," says Nicholas, waving his Snowmen socks. "But for God's sake, they play a tune!"

There are also lots of Mr Blobby lycra swimming shorts being brought back. "Last year it was Mr Blobby, the year before Ninja Turtles," says Mark. "With character merchandise - a huge part of the Christmas market now - it has to be the character in vogue. Get one that's slightly out and they don't want it. That goes for grown-ups as well as kids."

All along Oxford Street, grown-ups are wearing the expressions of disappointed children. "My sister-in-law bought me this," says Richard sullenly, indicating a basket of toiletries from the Body Shop. " `It's all ethnic,' she said, as if I should give a monkey's because I'm black. She pays too much attention to Sting."

Marianne has been in umpteen boutiques trying to find where her best friend bought her a sickly yellow cashmere jumper. "She's richer than me," she says. "She picks horrible colours. This must have cost £100.

"If I don't find the shop, at least that will save hurting her feelings. People forget that, don't they? That the person maybe tried hard and meant well, and they'll be hurt when you return their present."