AUDIE CORNISH, host:

If you're pondering how to get rid of that unwanted Amazon gift - you know, the heinous Christmas sweater; the super fragrant-super huge-everlasting candle; the leopard striped Snuggie that your aunt/cousin or long lost uncle sent this holiday - well, you're not alone.

The founder of the online juggernaut, Jeff Bezos has taken out a patent on a new, let's call it pre-return system. The patent plan suggests a way for people to return and to even exchange gifts before they leave the shelves. Amazon will even spare you the inevitable awkward conversation later by sending the gift-giver a thank-you note for the present you turned away.

Well, here to talk more about this is reporter Michael Rosenwald. He wrote about it for The Washington Post. Hi there, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL ROSENWALD (Reporter, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, this news leaked because a patent has already been awarded to Amazon for the idea. So let's get into more detail about how it would work.

Mr. ROSENWALD: Well, it would work this way. Every year, millions of packages get shipped across the country from Amazon from all over their various warehouses to gift receivers who open them and invariably look at them and go, hmm, I didn't want that. And then the gifts go back across the country.

Amazon has come up with a way to make sure that the gifts that you get are the gifts that you want. They have patented a method of creating rules in your Amazon account so that if you get a gift, for instance, from Aunt Mildred who is a awful gift-giver, those gifts would automatically either be converted to a gift card or something from your wish list.

You can specify, for instance, don't give me wool sweaters. And if a wool sweater is ordered for you, it would be converted into something else. The rules could go sort of on and on and on. You could say anything over $50, let me know first and convert the gift.

All of this would be done through emails and through the typical Amazon interface that you're so familiar with.

CORNISH: And from what we understand, would the gift-giver actually know that you had set up this - I guess, essentially, gift filter?

Mr. ROSENWALD: In many cases, they would not know. In fact, in their patent has made it pretty clear that you could send a return thank-you note that thanks the person for the actual gift that you converted, without telling them that the gift had been converted.

In another setup, you could specify that you would send a note to the gift giver saying: Hey, look, thank you for the thought but I've decided to convert it to something else.

CORNISH: How big a problem are returns for online retailers?

Mr. ROSENWALD: Well, as much as 30 percent of what's ordered goes back. And when it goes back, particularly if it's a gift, the e-retailer typically picks up the cost. And so, you could imagine if 30 percent of the billions and billions of dollars of gifts that Amazon sends every year are going back, it's a huge cost. So you could see where Amazon would want to get the right gift in the right hands the first time.

CORNISH: So Michael, frankly, this sounds rude. And it seems like it defeats the purpose of getting someone a gift at all.

Mr. ROSENWALD: It does. And I've had the same sort of initial reaction that people would think this is rude and I called, you know, Emily Post's great-great-granddaughter and she thought it was terribly rude. But when I've asked other people about it, particularly people in their early 30s to early 40s, and I've said to them, hey, would you use this? They said, yeah, of course I'd use it. It's such a pain to have to go to the post office or to the UPS store to get this stuff back.

And why shouldn't I get what I want? It's my birthday. It's my Christmas. I should get what I want. So I think the world has changed a lot in the digital revolution and one of the ways it has changed is that everything is I. And of course, there is iPhones and iTunes and I this and I that. But people think that what they should get via Christmas, via Amazon, via the biggest e-retailer in the world should be something they want.

CORNISH: That's Michael Rosenwald of The Washington Post. He talked to us about Amazon's patent for a new pre-return system. Michael, thanks so much.

Mr. ROSENWALD: Thanks for having me.

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