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Many Happy Returns

In today's uncertain economy, when stories about the latest layoffs are a staple of the daily papers, how can anxious parents stuff those stockings without busting the bank? Given the appetite of today's kids for everything digital -- from cameras to CD players to MP3s -- that's a tall order.

It's also why, an e-tailer specializing in rebuilt goods, is happily playing Santa's helper. According to Aron Scharf, the outfit's founder and president, sales have tripled in 2002. Businesses like his occupy a niche created by consumer-protection laws that prohibit returned electronic goods being put straight back onto the shelf. Instead, they must go back to the factory, where they are checked, before being passed along to outfits like RefurbDepot.

"We estimate that 84% of returned products were received in perfect working condition," says Scharf, whose Web site lists products ranging from top-of-the-line universal remote controls to brand-name cameras and computer monitors, all at substantial discounts on showroom prices.

COMPARISON SHOPPING. How significant are the savings? According to shopping-guide site, the same 5-inch Sony color TV for which RefurbDepot is asking $99.95 costs $179.99 if purchased new from Amazon.

What if the refurbished wares are part of the 16% of returned goods that Scharf estimates were returned because of faults or flaws? According to Chris Maxwell, services manager at Fuji in Avenel, N.J., that's not an issue because it's in manufacturers' best interests to remedy any and all deficiencies. "The quality of the product will reflect on the company whether it's refurbished or straight of the production line," Maxwell notes, adding that the overwhelming majority of refurbished goods come with valid warranties.

The big negative: less choice. Because refurb retailers depend on product availability, it's up to consumers to cast themselves as Santa's elves and scout out the best deals. By Alison Ogden in New York

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