With less than a week left in the holiday shopping season, there is one gift option that is likely on everyone's list, and buyers don't have to worry about getting the right size or color.
Gift cards are the most-requested presents for the 11th year in a row, with 61 percent of surveyed people saying they are at the top of their wish lists, according to a 2017 holiday shopping report from the National Retail Federation. Of the more than 7,000 people surveyed, 52 percent of men and 70 percent of women said they were asking for the cards this year.
Gift givers are happily obliging, with 59 percent reporting they would give gift cards this season, slightly up from last year. Shoppers planned to buy an average of four gift cards with an average value of $45 per card, states the report. Nationally, spending on gift cards is expected to reach $27.6 billion this season.
Deborah Fowler, interim associate chair and professor of hospitality and retail management at Texas Tech, said in an email that gift cards were initially introduced by Neiman Marcus in 1994 but really gained traction in 2009. Brands like Starbucks have honed the practice; now, 1 in 7 purchases at the coffee chain in the United States are paid for with a gift card.
In a family of primarily adults, Fowler said giving gift cards allows her to give a present she knows the recipient will like.
"One year I rebelled and bought gifts because Christmas had become a gift card exchange, but I quickly learned what I wanted to buy for someone and what they wanted to receive were two different things," Fowler said. "Now I buy gift cards from retailers where I know the recipient likes to shop."
Gift cards can help a recipient get a high-dollar gift, Fowler said, by asking for multiple cards of smaller amounts from multiple people, and then using them together. Gift cards can also allow recipients to take advantage of after-holiday sales many retailers have, Fowler said.
Fowler suggested asking friends and family if they even want a gift card, and if so where from, but there are some places everyone has a reason to go to.
"To successfully give a gift card, you need to know something about the recipient," Fowler said. "You can give ones to mass merchandisers and be fairly confident they will find them useful, but being able to give one to a 'special' retailer to the recipient is better."
Making sure recipients are fed and well-caffeinated are top priorities for gift-card givers. In the NRF survey, 36 percent reported they planned to purchase gift cards from restaurants, the top category, and 21 percent planned to buy a gift card from a coffee shop.
Brandt Stravlo, local co-owner of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins, said in an email that a gift card to one of the three locations in town, with a fourth opening next month, gives a recipient choices, since they can use it on sweet favorites like coffee, doughnuts or ice cream.
Customers can purchase a Dunkin' Donuts gift card online, directly emailing or texting the card to the recipient, making the gifting process easier than ever, Stravlo said.
"The Dunkin' Donuts goal is to make it as easy as possible to give a gift, which often means sending a gift card to someone near or far," Stravlo said. "The e-gift card allows you to send a gift to someone electronically so you don't have to mail the gift. It's all about ease of access and ease of purchase."
It is still early in the gift card-giving season, Stravlo said, but customers have enjoyed the ease and availability of the mobile purchase option.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is also making it easy to buy a gift card, said Noah Pechacek, front-of-house manager at the theater. He said guests can purchase a card, some with special "Star Wars" designs, at concierge, the Glass Half Full Bar or use the special order cards at each seat in the theaters.
In the NRF report, 18 percent of respondents said they would purchase entertainment-related gift cards. A gift card to Alamo Drafthouse can be used on food, beverages or movie tickets.
To incentivize gift card sales, Alamo is also offering a $10 snack pass when customers spend $50 on gift cards, Pechacek said.
United Supermarkets, which sells gift cards both for its stores and for a variety of other retailers and restaurants, is also offering a seasonal bonus for gift card buyers. Customers who purchase a card from a retailer other than United or generic gift cards will receive double the points through the store's rewards program. For example, purchasing a $15 iTunes gift card at United will give the customer 30 reward points that can be used on groceries or gas.
Mary Myers, United Family communications manager, said gift card sales are steady throughout the year but definitely spike during the holidays. She said offering gift cards from other businesses is a mutually beneficial program for both United, the partner retailers and customers.
"One of the things that we know is that during the holiday season, visits to the grocery store are on the list. Everyone has errands to run, groceries to get," Myers said. "While they're here, if they can knock out some of their gift-giving needs, too, then we're happy to provide that service."
United also has a gift card exchange program, Myers said. Customers can bring in unwanted and partially used gift cards and get cash back or store credit for a portion of the value. In 2015, close to $1 billion worth of gift cards went unused, according to professional services firm Gartner.
If the recipient is particularly hard to shop for, Myers said, generic gift cards that can be used anywhere are also popular, appearing on 24 percent of shoppers' to-buy lists, according to the NRF.
To make giving gift cards a bit more special, Fowler said she wraps them just like any other holiday present.
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