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3 ways to contain the ugly holiday shopper within

In the holiday spirit of good cheer and sanity, here are some simple ways to get what you want this shopping season without losing your mind.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The customer is always right. At least in his enraged mind.

The frenzied holiday shopping season sometimes results in outbursts of ugly behavior we later regret. The potential triggers are everywhere: a sales clerk may seem to be intentionally difficult or dense; a store's return policy may be maddeningly complicated; or the crush of shoppers could have you ready to snap.

But even in such scenarios, is rudeness ever justified?

"If you're trying to be a part of the solution rather than becoming the problem, it makes the whole shopping experience a lot more pleasant," said Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the market research firm NPD.

More importantly, it's a more effective way to get what you want.

In the spirit of good cheer and sanity, here are three ways to avoid getting ugly:

1. Don't assume you're being snubbed

There's nobody around to unlock the dressing room. You need help but all the clerks are preoccupied. A sales clerk finishes a phone call as you stand by ready to make your purchase.

Those are among customers' most cited pet peeves, according to Cohen. The common thread? Customers are left feeling ignored.

The anger often stems from the perception that it's an intentional snub. But it just may be that the clerk didn't realize you needed help.

"Sometimes everyone's just busy or there's something else going on that you're not aware of," Cohen said.

If you're not getting what you need, don't be shy about requesting help. If the clerk is preoccupied, feel free to ask how much longer you should expect to wait or if it makes sense to come back later. But don't immediately get defensive and snap at sales associates.

You should find they're more than happy to help if you meet them halfway.

2. Understand the return policy

The necklace your husband gives you is too flashy but he didn't get a gift receipt. You already have the book your mother bought you. The shop says it doesn't exchange or take back sale items.

Return policies are another major source of turmoil between shoppers and retailers. The problem is that consumers often aren't aware of the policy.

That's even though the terms are usually printed right on the receipt or available on store websites.

"Despite a customer's absolute certainty that they were taken advantage of, there's often clear evidence that that wasn't the case," said Bob Manista, president of the Better Business Bureau in Oklahoma City.

Even if a policy isn't clearly disclosed or seems unfair, there's probably not much you can do unless the manager makes an exception for you. But don't get bent out of shape if a manager won't accommodate you.

Larger retailers usually have customer service lines that are designed to handle these type of concerns. If it's a mom-and-pop type small business, try contacting the owners directly.

The best way to avoid the predicament is to understand what your options are before you head to the store. Keep in mind that retailers usually have more lenient return policies for the holiday shopping season.

3. Don't treat anyone like a stranger

The quest for parking puts you in a foul mood. You get inside the mall and it's hot and crowded. Everyone's grabbing for the items you want.

It's no wonder shoppers push and shove and snap at each other.

"People come into the store, and they're part of a larger crowd. They don't stand out, so they feel they can do or say certain things without any ramifications," said Joseph LaRocca, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "A lot of this is due to the anonymity."

But treating fellow shoppers with as if they were co-workers or acquaintances will help ensure they accord you the same courtesy.

That's one reason why sales associates make eye contact and greet customers; it diffuses the potential that customers will act unreasonably if they don't get what they want.

You can tell yourself your enlightened attitude is in the spirit of good will. But the real benefit? The holidays will feel a lot more sane.