Because life is a series of edits

Gift Cards: Yea or Nay?

In Thought on December 20, 2006 at 11:34 pm

Finished finals, turned in my last paper of the semester, and spent the rest of yesterday (as well as today) schlepping stuff from our apartment to the new house we’re renting. I’ll post more on the move soon, but suffice it to say, it’s going to be a great place for our family.

While making my umpteenth trip back and forth between places, I heard on the radio that, according to this American Express survey from a month or so ago (not sure how I missed it then), 66% of Christmas shoppers plan to give gift cards this year, a nearly-ten-percent jump from last year’s survey. Here’s why:

“Among those planning on purchasing gift cards, two thirds (66%) want the receiver to choose his or her own gift, and a large majority (57%) say that the option of giving gift cards has changed how they think about shopping. Seven in ten (73%) say they finish shopping faster with less stress. Shoppers also say they will go to the mall and stores less often, including Thanksgiving weekend (60%), some will likely get their holiday shopping done earlier (59%) although other shoppers say they plan to start later because they know they can always get a gift card (45%).”

How do those receiving the cards feel about this trend? Apparently they don’t seem to mind:

“By letting people get what they want for the holidays, gift cards have changed the dynamics of post-holiday shopping. According to the survey, a majority (56%) say they return fewer gifts when they receive gift cards. A third (32%) will redeem their gift cards within a month, and nearly one in four (23%) will redeem their cards within six months. Seven percent say they plan to redeem gift cards during the post-holiday week.”

The survey goes on to talk about who people are buying gift cards for, as well as that those giving gift cards have no expectation of receiving a thank you note from the recipient.

In listening to the story today, it seems obvious that the trend of our nation’s gift-giving frenzy this time of year revolves not around what someone wants to give, but what someone simply wants. Perhaps it’s too subtle an observation, but when I listened to all the commercials following the story, this was their clear theme.

Full disclosure: I’m not much (okay, I’m not any kind) of a gift-giver myself, so I don’t stay up nights thinking about this. But for those who are (and those who do), is what’s keeping you up your indecision about what exactly you want to give to someone else, or are you losing sleep trying to figure out exactly what the other person wants? Again, it’s a subtle difference, but it seems to me the latter causes a whole lot more stress than the former.

A friend of mine and I were talking about this (sort of) at a recent Christmas party we were both attending. As we were discussing the latest books we had been reading, George made the comment that he loves the holidays because his family always gives him some new books to read for the new year. However, when he’s asked what books he would like, he tells them to pick out something they think he would like, rather than him tell them what he wants. He says he’s never disappointed with their selections, and his library stays a little more varied than it would otherwise as a result.

I like that philosophy, but I recognize that it takes time and thought. Is the gift card phenomenon simply a function of limited calendars and creativity (it certainly doesn’t seem to be due to a limited pocketbook)? Do you buy gift cards for others, and if so, what’s your main motivation? And if you don’t, why not (and what do you do instead)?

  1. Hello there,
    I found your blog through the “culture” tag and I just wanted to say that I’ve really been enjoying it!

    To answer your question: Yes, I sometimes buy gift cards for others, but it usually makes me feel a bit guilty. Mostly because the reason I would buy the card would be that I really didn’t know what they would like. There are some people, though, that really appreciate a gift certificate over some other gift. I think it all comes down to knowing the person. For me, I really don’t mind whether a person gets me a gift card or a gift. It’s really the thought that counts!

  2. The whole gift giving thing is just so skewed. I like using a gift card when I have something in mind, but know I can’t “give” the whole thing, or would like the receiver to choose the particular features, etc. Then its personal. I used to do this with cash and attach a little picture or description of the intended gift item.
    But, you know, I think that the current craze (and this is self convicting, because I’m the queen) is just this affluenza obsession with “stuff” and not really giving of my heart and myself.
    This year, its all about re-gifting for us. As we clean up and pack out, I keep running into things that “so and so might like this”. Guess what – they are getting it!

  3. I think gift cards work out to be a good way to give a gift if the recipient is living at a distance, since there is less involved in shipping of a gift (which might get broken, need to be exchanged due to size or color choice, etc). Also, in choosing a book or CD of music, there is always the possibility that the recipient already has the one you are choosing and you do not know. A gift card gets around that issue.

    It seems to me that the popularity of gift cards has increased since they became like credit cards, could fit in a wallet and could be “spent” on more than one occasion – so much more convenient that the older style paper gift certificates. But I also worry about them possibly NOT getting used in full and the recipient not getting the full value of what the gifter has already spent. The companies selling the cards do very well out of the significant percentage of them that go unused.

    I think they have their place, but hope it never comes to the point that all the gifts given at Christmas time are gift cards!

  4. I suppose most people reading this blog already agree that the Christmas season is over-commercialized, and for that matter, our whole culture is disturbingly materialistic. So, I won’t go on a long rant about that.

    On the topic of gift cards, I think they have their place, but they are probably over-used. One legitimate use is to give to people you don’t know very well, like someone you work with, or your mailcarrier, or your brother’s new wife or something. In those cases, you might not really know what the person will enjoy or use, but almost everyone enjoys eating out at a restaurant or a night at the movies.

    Another way we have used gift cards is to give a busy couple a night out together. For instance, we have given friends cards to a restaurant we like or to a night at the movies, and then included a note that the gift includes a night of babysitting.

    When gift cards take all thoughtfulness out of gift-giving, however, I think that is a bit of a problem. For instance, I can’t imagine giving my wife a gift card for Christmas. Not only would I be in big trouble, but I would feel like I deserve to be in big trouble. But another example is the gift-exchange we have with my extended family. It started because my mom’s side of the family is so large (40+ people, counting aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) that it was unreasonable to expect anyone to buy presents for everybody. So, we thought it would be fun to do “secret santas” where everyone buys a present for one other person. Well, over the years, the whole thing has degenerated into a gift card exchange. Nobody wants to put the work into thinking of something interesting to ask for, and nobody wants to shop for something interesting. As a consumer, I have to admit that I like my yearly gift card to the movies or Borders or whereever. But I do have some troubled feelings about the whole thing.

  5. interesting blog series that goes along with

    You know, its not the gift card that’s the problem. Its the thought and reason… so I like your idea of including a night of babysitting. I’ve also done a “this includes lunch together and then we get to go shopping together to spend your card/gift certificate” when it really was a matter of needing to be fitted for the item… so part of the gift was really the gift of “quality time”. A lot depends on the love language of the recipient. If their language is gifts, then a gift card without careful thought will land like a lead baloon.

  6. Follow-up: got a few gift cards (mall, movies) and appreciated them very much. Thanks for the thoughts above.

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