The gift-giving season is upon us, and that means good cheer, the love of family, and the exchange of presents -- including, if we're honest, some gifts we'd like to exchange for something completely different. Sometimes our well-meaning loved ones just don't quite get it right, like the year I harped on the cuteness of newborn kittens to my then-boyfriend, who surprised me with a geriatric tomcat for Christmas. (No offense to the tomcat -- whom I named "Waldo" after his tendency to disappear.)

Waldo clearly wasn't going back to any department store, but perhaps you have some items that can and will, if you have your way. Unfortunately, many retailers have gotten tougher about returns in an effort to combat fraudsters. That's why it pays to know upfront how to maximize your chances of a good return experience.

Here are some top tips for dealing with gift choices that went awry:

  • Check the store's website for the return policy before you head down in person. You'll want to know whether they accept returns without the receipt, whether they have a hard-and-fast rule regarding a time frame for returns (sometimes they make exceptions around the holiday season), whether there is a restocking fee, and whether you'll get cash back or store credit.
  • Call the closest bricks-and-mortar store and see whether they can advise you as to the best time of day or the best day of the week for returns. Going during an off-time can help you get more personal (and less harried) attention from store personnel. This is also an opportunity to check for the documentation they require and to clarify store policies regarding returns.
  • When returning a gift you purchased, be sure to bring the credit card used for the original transaction. Many stores will ask for it when attempting to credit you the return funds.
  • Return the gift in its original packaging. Stores look more kindly on return merchandise that doesn't look worn or damaged (go figure!).
  • Bring your sunniest disposition. Clerks may have discretion over whether or not to accept a return; you don't want a rotten attitude to ruin your chances.
  • If you're the unlucky recipient of a gift with neither a receipt nor any identifying markings (like a barcode or store sticker), you'll have a tough time returning. You can try to research its origins on the Internet or extract the information from the gift-giver ("I like it so much, I wanted to get another. Where did you say you bought it?"), but there are no guarantees that the store will take it back. If they accept the item, be aware that it will be at the lowest price of the season.
  • Expect to pay shipping for online shopping returns, though in limited cases, the merchant will pay if you're exchanging the item rather than expecting a refund.
  • If you're the one doing the purchasing, do your recipients a favor and ask for a gift receipt. A gift receipt can help expedite a return, enable a full refund (in many cases), and spread all-around good cheer. Also favor merchants who maintain return policies that benefit the customer.

If all of these strategies fail to help you unload your unwanted gifts, create a "Dreadful Gift Exchange" with friends or colleagues. Each person brings his or her least favorite gift and leaves with someone else's. It's not exactly a solution, but the laughs from your Aunt Bessie's salmon-colored afghan will be priceless.

This article is adapted from the Motley Fool Green Light Money Answers archive, which features more than 100 articles on personal finance topics such as taxes, credit, and beginning investing, organized by subject and life stage. For access to this content -- plus the current newsletter, back issues, members-only discussion boards, and advisor blogs -- take a free 30-day trial today!  

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor who regularly talks money with her honey, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter and co-advisor of Motley Fool Green Light. The Fool has a disclosure policy.