Friday, November 18, 2005


The holiday shopping season is in full swing and the major credit card companies have jumped into the fray. Have you seen their latest gift idea? Visa’s offering one now and American Express has been promoting theirs pretty hard. It’s a pre-loaded credit gift card. Their value proposition is that the credit card works just like a gift card, but you can use it anywhere! Wow – what a brilliant fucking idea. A gift card that works at ANY store. That’s amazing.

Wait a second. Don’t they already have something like that? Oh yeah. I think it’s called CASH.

But cash as a holiday gift gets a bad rap because it can be perceived as thoughtless and uninspired. The appeal of the gift card is that it lets people take the easy way out of having to choose a gift for someone, without entirely removing thoughtfulness from the exercise. By giving someone a Borders gift card, you’re essentially saying, “I think you like to read, but I don’t have the time or the balls to pick something out for you.”

Of course, it’s always spun as a positive:

“This way I figured you could pick out whatever you want.”


But the proof is in the pudding. Gift cards have been wildly successful because people LIKE gift cards. They're easy. Plus, we LIKE being able to pick out the things we want instead of having someone else presume to know what we want. And do you know who REALLY loves gift cards? Retailers. They save a fortune every year in unused cards. Shit – I’ve still got gift cards in my wallet from LAST Christmas. That’s money that went directly into the bank accounts of big businesses in exchange for future purchases that were never made. And by the time I actually use them, prices will have risen and I won’t be able to get as much product as I would have a year ago when the cards were originally purchased.

If you've been post-holiday shopping for years, you may have noticed a trend. The number of post-holiday sale events have significantly decreased. There was a time when malls were packed post-holidays with people shopping for deals. Retailers customarily dropped prices after the holidays to keep traffic coming at a time when consumers felt financially tapped out. Not anymore. That's because we've entered the age of gift cards. If retailers drop prices, they'll be giving away more product when people use their gift cards. That's why, instead of using them right after the holidays, it's now better to wait a month or two.

I don't mean to badmouth gift cards here - heaven knows I've given out and appreciated receiving my share of them over the last decade. And I’m certainly not suggesting gift cards are a racket – they’re just good for business. And if they're good for business, they're good for the economy, which is good for people looking for work, which is good for boosting employment figures, which is good for putting money in peoples' pockets, which is, in turn, good for business. Ah, the wonders of capitalism.

I guess that explains why the credit card companies are finally getting into gift card the act. They’re banking on the fact that if they can talk people into giving out plastic cards as gifts instead of cash, people will lose or forget to use their cards and they’ll make out like bandidos.

So my advice to you this holiday shopping season is to resist the urge to buy preloaded credit cards as a holiday gifts. Especially considering I am more than happy to accept cash.

Thanks in advance!


Rebecca said...

I know I'm a bit unusual in the sense that I LOVE shopping for other people. It's not always easy to figure out the right thing, but I find that I learn more about the people I love by trying. Of course people really only like things that they are good at, and so many people in the world ought to stick to cash...

The only redeeming quality I can think of for a gift card as opposed to cash is that you are aware of when you spend it- therefore you know that your bro-in-law got you a pair of socks and a sweater (or whatever you picked out) as opposed to a variety of junk food at the gas station, and a bottle of wine and a six-pack for your new year's party, and that toll you paid on the way home... cash is not usually spent consciously.

Peter N said...

A bottle of wine and a six-pack...there's a party right there. And with junk food! A dinner party.

Steve Golden said...

The thing that gets me about gift cards is why do they have an expiration date? They got the money and as you noted the value is only going to decrease. And I've wounder the same thing about my CTA card, why should it ever expire? I put the money in.