In The Cards

By Chandra Orr

September 19, 2008 5 min read

IN THE CARDS

This simple swiper might be the perfect item for you

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

A gift card just may be the perfect present.

In fact, they were the third most popular gift last year, with the average American purchasing six of these stocking-stuffer sized presents, according to a 2007 survey done by American Express Gift Cards and the International Council of Shopping Centers.

"Gift cards are extremely popular over the holiday season because they are budget-friendly, easy to purchase and stress-free if you really don't have a clue as to what to buy for the recipient," said Jennifer Melnick Carota, founder of TheGiftTherapist.com and author of "Shop Smart GIVE MORE," ($17, Lulu).

"For someone who you don't know well or a person living at a distance whose size you can't track or lifestyle may be unfamiliar, gift cards are perfect," said Brenda Gilpatrick, president of Your Fantastic Plastic, a gift card consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga. "It's also a really good idea for the person who has everything."

For many people, receiving one of these pieces of plastic is not just about money. "It allows the recipient to select something of their choosing and provides a memorable experience at the same time," Gilpatrick said. "A cash gift could never provide the same experience and emotion, nor would a gift that had to be returned."

They may be an ideal solution to your gift-giving dilemma, but don't let the one-size-fits-all approach fool you. Gift cards are diverse and easy to personalize. Put some thought into it and you're sure to surprise this season.

* Make it personal: Rely on the recipient's interests when choosing the gift card itself and the design.

Most retailers offer a myriad of designs to choose from based on occasion and interests. Some even let you create your own card. The Visa Gift Card Lab at giftcardlab.com, for example, lets shoppers customize each card with a personal photo and the recipient's name.

"You likely know the person well enough to know their likes or their hobbies or their favorite stores or you wouldn't be giving them a gift. Pay attention and start with something the recipient enjoys," Gilpatrick said.

* Look beyond the stores. In addition to restaurants and movie theaters, gift cards are available for plenty of other "experiences," from golf courses and spas to travel brokers and digital download websites.

Multipurpose gift cards are also growing in popularity. Many malls and downtown shopping districts offer cards that can be redeemed at any of their stores.

* Shop smart: Gift cards are all about convenience -- and reward. Larger grocery stores and drug stores offer a wide selection of gift cards for restaurants, online retailers and nationwide chains, which makes it easy to grab your gift and go. As the competition increases, look for more stores to add incentives to gift card purchases.

"In return for you gift card purchase, many grocers are offering free fuel discounts or an in-store credit, making a gift card purchase pay off for both the buyer and recipient," Carota said.

Just keep an eye on the fine print. Review the expiration date and check for hidden costs like dormancy fees -- a monthly charge deducted from the card's balance when not used within a specified time period.

* Presentation is everything: Rather than just slipping that well-chosen gift card into an envelope, consider a more clever approach.

"Give one or two complimentary small gifts in addition to the gift card," Carota said. "It creates a theme, and creating a theme reflects your thoughtfulness and creativity. The key is to add a personal touch without breaking the bank."

Present a gift card to an Italian restaurant with a bottle of wine and gourmet truffles or pair a Starbucks gift card with a holiday mug and a batch of homemade cookies.

"Package it in a way that they would never presume it is a gift card," said Gilpatrick, who once gave her nephew a Gap gift card tucked in the toe of a pair of socks. "It becomes a game of being more and more creative at the choice and way it is packaged."

* Keep it safe, and manage your money: Some companies let recipients register gift cards in the event of loss or theft. For the most part, though, gift cards are irreplaceable, so treat them like cash and always protect your PIN.

Keep an eye on the balance and be sure to use the full amount before the card expires. To keep track of multiple cards, register with an online service like Leverage (www.leveragecard.com), which lets users earn interest on registered gift cards, manage card balances and even swap unwanted gift cards for free.

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