Sometimes big gifts really do come in small packages. Tear open your Hanukkah or Christmas presents, and chances are you’re going to find a gift card. Seventy-five percent of Americans will buy at least one gift card this holiday season, and more than half would like to receive one, according to the National Retail Federation.
The Washington-based trade group estimates that gift card sales will reach $18 billion this holiday season. "It’s very important, and growing more important each year," says Len Gilbert of Barnes & Noble. "There’s been a general trend in the last few years from the gift card being seen as a cop-out gift to a gift of personal choice."
EASY TO BUY, EASY TO GIVE
The appeal is obvious. Who doesn’t have a picky teen or an office mate with wacky tastes? Gift cards take the guesswork and aggravation out of shopping for traditional gifts. They’re quick to purchase (you can pick them up at the grocery store checkout or online) and easy to carry (no elaborate wrapping needed).
"We carry over a million titles, and it’s very hard for someone to know exactly what the perfect book or movie is," Gilbert says. "If they get the card, they can choose what gift they want. It can be intimidating to pick the perfect book for someone."
Still, gift cards are a long way from replacing the traditional Christmas gift. The projected $18 billion in sales is only a small chunk of the estimated $435.3 billion holiday shopping pie.
Last year Sandy Ptacek of Gold Canyon picked up $250 in gift cards at Safeway, and she plans to do the same this year.
"Everyone got gift cards from me," says Ptacek. "Restaurants for brothers and sisters and their families. Home Depot and Lowe’s for the son who just bought a house. I really don’t enjoy shopping anymore. I’m tired of malls, tired of parking lots, tired of crowds."
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Today just about every retailer in the United States offers a gift card, and you can find something for every taste or interest: The Gap for teens, Barnes & Noble for the family bibliophile or Home Depot for the do-it-yourselfer. Or buy your favorite fast-food junkie lunch for the next few months: McDonald’s recently introduced its Arch Card, and Sonic also carries a gift card.
The introduction of the prepaid debit card, which you can pick up at almost any financial institution, means customers can shop in more places. Westcor, which owns and operates most East Valley malls, sells its own prepaid debit card that can be used at any store in the mall.
"It’s harder and harder to buy and choose for people when there’s so much out there," says Westcor’s Sherry DeCovic. "It all just goes back to choice."
It’s also a win-win situation for retailers. Gift cards require less room, and 56 percent of consumers will spend more than the value of the card when they enter the store, according to First Data, which manages gift card accounts for retailers.
And if you happen to open a stocking or present and find your gift card wanting, you’ve got options: A few enterprising Web sites —
let you swap or sell your "returnproof" gift cards.
EXPIRATION DATES CAN BE A HASSLE
Of course, all that choice can come with a few drawbacks. Some consumers have been burned by expiration dates, restrictions and monthly maintenance fees.
"The thing that struck them totally off my list, incurred my anger and set me on a personal crusade against them was finding a card I had received for Christmas a year later and then discovering that it was worthless because the issuing vendor had imposed an expiration date," says Dave Van Amburg of Tempe.
"I really, really abhor the way the gift cards work," says Amy Paterson of Mesa. "Gift cards are shoved in a drawer or sit in your purse with dozens of other cards, and you forget to use them. Then — this is the real kicker — the stores start taking off money every month you don’t use the card."
But even Paterson concedes gift cards are a necessary evil.
"I am giving gift cards, even though I hate them," she says. "I like giving more personal gifts, but I currently work three jobs and do not have the time to be a creative thinker this year."
Others see gift cards as symptomatic of a greater ill.
"They are designed more for the giver than the recipient and fit right in with the impersonality and commercialism of the Christmas season and the superficiality of life in America in general," says Bruce Fritz of Mesa. "At least cash is real."