How to exchange unwanted holiday gift from a mail-order firm

It's several days after Christmas, and you still haven't figured out what to do with that simulated-wood, ''antique style'' clock your uncle ordered for you from a mail-order house as a Christmas present. After you've found a diplomatic way to tell your uncle that you don't like the clock, how do you go about returning it and getting something else or a refund?

Problems like this are occurring more often these days, as people find mail-order shopping a convenient way to buy presents for friends and relatives.

''We began to see more mail-order sales after the energy crisis,'' said Ed Pfeiffer, spokesman for the Direct Marketing Association (formerly Direct Mail/Marketing Association). ''And there are more working women who use mail order, too.''

If the weeks before Christmas are busy for the mail-order companies, the weeks after can get pretty busy, too, with many of the gifts being sent back.

If you have a mail-order gift you want to return, there are some rules that need to be followed fairly specifically. But if you follow them carefully, you should be able to get a replacement, exchange the gift for something else, or even get a refund. All this assumes that the mail-order house is honest and is as concerned about its reputation as it is about shoving merchandise out the door.

First, write a letter explaining to the company you are returning a Christmas gift and why you're sending it back. The letter should include the name and address of the person who ordered the gift for you. You should also say what you want done: a refund, an exchange, or a replacement.

''Many people forget to tell the company what they want,'' a spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus said. ''Do they want another color, something else from the catalog, or their money back?''

In some cases, you can also be reimbursed for the costs of shipping the gift, but this is something else you should ask for; even at companies that do this, it's not automatic.

Call the company to see if there are any special forms required for returning a gift. Most mail-order companies have a toll-free telephone line. If the number is not on the package or any of the literature that came with it, you can call 800-555-1212. This is the information number for all WATS-line phones.

When you make that phone call to the mail-order house, tell the company that you are returning something. It sometimes helps if they can make a note that something is expected. Ask for the name of the person you are talking to, for your records.

In addition to phone records, keep complete records of all forms and letters. You may want to go to a coin-operated photocopying machine to make copies of them.

If you are planning to order presents form a mail-order firm in the future, there are some additional rules to follow to make it easier on yourself and the person receiving the gift. First, you can check the reputation of the firm through a local office of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a state or local consumer-affairs office, or the Direct Marketing Association (6 East 43rd Street , New York, N.Y. 10017).

Find out how long it will take for the item to be delivered. According to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations, the company must ship merchandise within 30 days after receiving an order, unless otherwise specified in the ad. Less-reputable mail-order firms have been known to have no inventory in stock. They only begin building an inventory when they have enough orders. Otherwise, they may have no intention of filling your order.

In addition to the BBB and the FTC, you can also take complaints to consumer-protection offices, the US Postal Service, and the advertising department of the magazine or newspaper that ran the ad, if you found out about the firm through such advertising.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given by mail or phone. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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