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Bad cards...bad!
January 5, 2005 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Gift cards are evil. Or so says Dan Gross at Slate. I love Slate, but too many things in this article are just ridiculous. (more inside)
posted by braun_richard (83 comments total)

 
So, what's not to like? A few things. Buy a gift card and you're essentially lending cash to the retailer today that is paid back through merchandise tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Do they really need us to extend short-term interest-free loans to them?

Who cares? Seriously, how is this my (or anyone's) problem?

And gift cards frequently carry a price for their recipients. Walking into a store with free money in your pocket is like walking into an all-you-can-eat buffet after fasting—you'll feel psychologically impelled and entitled to consume more than usual, because the short-term cost will seem lower. "When customers go into the store, they don't feel constrained to just stick to that card," said Karen Larsen, vice president of global marketing and business development at ValueLink.

Yeah, but again, so what? When someone gives a gift card to someone, they are giving a card to a store that the recipient would shop in anyway. For example, I got two gift cards to Borders Books, each for $25. I'm going to spend that $50 no matter what.

Finally, depending on the recipient's self-esteem and level of paranoia, gift cards can seem a wee bit paternalistic and controlling. Gift cards are tailor-made for recipients who are irresponsible or deficient in taste and self-awareness—or who are simply prone to feeling that way. Give your teenager $50 and she might blow it on midriff-baring halter tops at Abercrombie & Fitch. But that J. Crew gift card can be spent only on presentable clothing. Dismayed that your boyfriend's recent reading list extends only as far as Maxim? A Border's gift card could send a message. For the insecure male on your list, a Thomas Pink gift card could be a not-so-subtle hint that his shirts are blighted with ugly stains.

I would like to think he's being irreverent here, but I doubt it. And by the way, the boyfriend could spend that Border's gift card on Maxim and FHM and Stuff and Playboy, which are all sold at Borders.

But every moment you don't use it, Wal-Mart or some other giant retailer is collecting interest on the giver's cash. When you go to redeem it, chances are you'll end up spending some of your own coin. And it probably reflects the giver's implicit criticism of your poor taste and untrustworthiness.

Or they know where I like to shop and want to make sure I get a gift I really want.
posted by braun_richard at 10:04 AM on January 5, 2005


I read the article, then I thought back to all the gift cards I got this christmas. I realized, at all the stores I used the gift cards, I bought more than what was on the card. DAMN YOU BORDERS/ITUNES!!!!
posted by menace303 at 10:16 AM on January 5, 2005


I tend to agree with the author of the article--nothing like a thought-free token of appreciation! Why think when you don't have to show you care? Because you do.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:24 AM on January 5, 2005


Someone's just mad that they couldn't return a gift card for cash.

I dealt with a customer the other week who was upset that we could only give her store credit for a gift receipt return (a store credit is essentially a gift card), she complained that she never shops at our store so doesn't see why she shouldn't get cash back. The thing is, our store sells books, movies, CDs, magazines, and coffee and the store credits are good indefinitely.

How hard is it to suck it up, and spend say $35 of the credit and get a few dollars back in cash? It's not like we don't carry something that she'll like.
posted by drezdn at 10:25 AM on January 5, 2005


real gifts make the Baby Greenback cry.
posted by quonsar at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2005


Carefully chosen gift cards are excellent gifts. Walmart (ugh), other large department stores, malls, etc, are generally thoughtless purchases, akin to giving over cash, and I don't much care for them. But give a voracious reader a Chapters gift card, and you're not saying 'I had to get you something but didn't want to think about it', you're saying, 'I know you love books, and I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to which you don't already own.'

The arguments about loaning away the value of the money makes some vague sort of sense. But really, the giver of a real gift or cash would have spent the money and thus not had the interest off it. The recipient would have socked it somewhere until they spent it, if it were cash, and thus not had the interest off it. Isn't it better that the money is out there and moving around rather than sitting in my sock drawer because I haven't decided what to spend it on, yet.

The argument that it's a criticism of the recipient's taste is completely fucked up. If I was going to obliquely critiscize someone's taste in shirts, I'd buy them a better shirt, not give them a giftcard so they could go out and buy themselves something with their own bad taste. I'd argue that the message of a gift card is exactly the opposite of what is suggested, "your taste is better than mine, so please, choose for yourself."
posted by jacquilynne at 10:28 AM on January 5, 2005


Gift cards (tokens) are evil. I've seen people swapping similarly valued gift tokens as christmas presents. That's like saying to someone that "this christmas, I'm going to force you to spend a set amount of money in one particular shop. But that's OK, because you can do exactly the same to me... Merry Christmas!"

It's complete nonsense.
posted by seanyboy at 10:31 AM on January 5, 2005


What I find evil about (some) gift cards is that they actually lose value over time due to "administrative fees". For example I have a gift card from Simon Malls which began with a value of $50 and due to administrative fees is now worth about $25. Of course it's also expired and they charge $7.50 to replace the expired card. So the $50 gift I was given is only worth about $20 at this point - about 1 year after the card was bought (but only shortly after it was given to me).
posted by cmj at 10:31 AM on January 5, 2005


The writer overlooked the one true major problem with gift cards, most are made with plastic and aren't recycled.
posted by drezdn at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2005


I gotta agree with him. And what seanyboy said. Gift cards are a cop-out. If everyone's just going to exchange money or gift certificates, we may as well do away with gift-giving altogether.

While we're at it, non-blank greeting cards are pretty stupid too. For christ's sake people, write something yourself.
posted by condour75 at 10:38 AM on January 5, 2005


In my extended family, gift certificates are extremely rare, and I've always thought that was a good tradition. A thoughtful gift beats a gift card, every time. Giving a gift card puts a direct monetary value on the present, and indicates little to no thought whatsoever. As I've gotten older I've noticed that this philosophy of gift-giving is not at all universal, and in some cases is even a bit controversial. My son was talking the other day about how much money some of his friends had gotten in Christmas cash. I explained that that sort of thing is what some families do, but not ours, and why we've chosen not to go that path.

I don't make faces at people who give me gift certificates, but I do make sure that those who know me understand that I'd rather have something they picked out personally. OTOH, if it is a workplace reward or something, gift cards or cash are perfectly acceptable.
posted by Invoke at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2005


Regarding the "Gift cards are a thought-free copout" argument, I've seen it go both ways. One friend's family, relatively well-off, gives out $150 gift cards to their kids and tells them, 'Go find your present.' To him, it said "they don't care enough to wander out of the house for an afternoon." He was right. My girlfriend's family, though, gave her a Barnes & Noble gift card. As a voracious reader trying to make ends meet, she saw it as something from the heart -- the gift of guilt-free browsing and book-shopping, something she enjoys a lot. She was right, too.

Just because the author of the Slate article only knows lazy, insensitive people doesn't mean gift cards are the problem.
posted by verb at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2005


Buy a gift card and you're essentially lending cash to the retailer

Instead of leaving it in your non-interest bearing checking account where it will earn money for the bank.

Expirations and fees are a complete rip off, though there are some states (Illinois is one of them I believe) where cards/certificates cannot expire.

Gift cards can be brainless but have their place. There are kids I know, and to whom I give presents, who like books... trying to buy them something they will like that they haven't already read is tough; much simpler and nicer for everybody if they get a gift card and get to choose for themselves.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:44 AM on January 5, 2005


Retail stores make tons of money off gift cards that are lost or unused (if there is a time limit). Essentially they get $10, $25, $50 or more and do nothing but give out a little plastic card in return. Great deal for the retailer!
posted by nathanrudy at 10:46 AM on January 5, 2005


I have no problem with certain gift cards.

Like a lotta people hanging around MeFi, I'm a geek. Added to that, I'm a librarian. So my interests include the normal geeky things like computers, video games, RPGs, and of course books covering all the aforementioned items.

One is actually in danger of wasting their time and money by going to Best Buy, Borders, Game Stop, or ordering something off some similar websites because; well, if I need or want something I'll usually just go get it myself. If I want the new D&D sourcebook or something for the HERO system, I'll go buy it. Half Life 2 looked badass, so I went and got it. I wanted a book on digital art, so I went to Borders and bought the sucker. Or worse yet, since I have easy access to Interlibrary Loans, I might skip buying the book because it's too expensive and just order from another library.

I made no secret that I wanted these items and, for the most part, just waited until payday. If someone went and got these for me during Yule, they wasted their time and now mine because I have to go return it or whatever. Though if someone gets me a giftcard to Borders or wherever, they can rest assured that I'll use it well within a few days and I'll get exactly what I want. So where's the problem?
posted by GreatWesternDragon at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2005


I just want to know who would buy a McDonald's gift card.
posted by interrupt at 10:48 AM on January 5, 2005




I don't understand why people don't just give one another cash. A gift card is worse than cash, because you have to spend it at one place. For that matter, I don't understand the whole gift-giving-at-special-occasions thing anyway.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:51 AM on January 5, 2005


I got my sister a Bath & Body Works gift card for Christmas because that's what she asked for. She got me a Best Buy gift card because that's what I asked for. Gift cards fit in my wallet, which means I don't have to try and fit them in my luggage on the flight back or have them shipped to me. Don't give me a big-ass fragile thing I have to fit in my luggage without breaking, give me a gift card or money, so I can buy the big-ass fragile thing when I get back. If you want to be thoughtful, think of my "carry-on and personal item" limit and my "luggage handlers who play suitcase discus" problems and give me a friggen' gift card (or cash -- it may not be the right size, but it's always the right color).

(But don't get me a McDonald's gift card).
posted by dirigibleman at 10:55 AM on January 5, 2005


you know what's evil? gift cards with no value specified on them @%$#!
and I agree with jacquilynne... the cards need to be for somewhere the recipient would/does actually shop/eat. remembering my sister mention her and the baby-daddy eat at one particular restaurant weekly came in handy as I otherwise had no idea what to get for someone I spend so little time with.
posted by poipill at 10:55 AM on January 5, 2005


Giftcard vs. cash... The right gift card might say that you put some thought into what someone wants.

Me, I would love to get a gift card to a bookstore (except for Borders), especially since most people who buy me gifts (my family) don't know my tastes particularly well.

RE: gift card loses. Save the receipt when you buy a gift card, usually it will have the card number on it, and you can get another card or just use the number.
posted by drezdn at 10:58 AM on January 5, 2005


Bah. Gift cards are great for bastards like myself who have mercurial tastes or simply don't have anything in mind when opportunities roll around. Getting a gift card doesn't mean my partner or relative doesn't care about me, it means I'm a bitch to shop for and I'll get more satisfaction out of getting what I want later then something I'll throw away now.
posted by Vaska at 10:59 AM on January 5, 2005


Look, I can either guess what you'd like and maybe give you some crap you don't want or need - or I can give you a gift card and you can decide for yourself.

Which will it be?
posted by DieHipsterDie at 11:05 AM on January 5, 2005


Not all gift cards are created equal (duh).

For as long as I've been celebrating Christmas with my husband's family, they've been giving us each gift certificates, then cards, to the Tattered Cover, our bookstore mecca. Of course, they also chose more personal gifts, but the TC gift cards encompass more than just $100 in free books. They include a wonderful feeling of wandering through a huge bookstore for hours, knowing we have license to discover a few books we didn't know about or take a chance on titles we've been hedging on for a while or splurge on that photo book or cookbook that's never been worth our hard-earned cash. It's not just the books - its the experience of guilt-free shopping which, being a petty bourgeois who aspires to the money-flinging yuppie status I outwardly scorn, I welcome as an infrequent pleasure.

Plus, what else are you going to get two married librarians anyway?
posted by bibliowench at 11:07 AM on January 5, 2005


In my extended family, gift certificates are extremely rare, and I've always thought that was a good tradition.

Depends; for someone like me a gift card can be a thoughtful gift. I read a lot, and buy more than a few dvds. But it would be essentially impossible for anyone but me and my wife to know what I already have, what I've been reading in the past month or two, which dvd's are worth getting and which I'm waiting for a better edition, and so on. Especially not the inlaws and extended-inlaws in Toronto, unless they feel like flying down here to look through the bookshelves, or feel like quizzing me extensively. So for them, a gift card to a bookstore or video store *is* thoughtful, since they know the things I like but not which exact one I need at the moment.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:14 AM on January 5, 2005


Giving gift cards reduces a lot of the deadweight loss associated with giving gifts (giving cash would get rid of it all), though it still leaves the gift-giver in a disadvantaged state.
posted by cosmonaught at 11:18 AM on January 5, 2005


No one's mentioned another benefit of gift cards--you can use them to buy gifts for other people. My mother-in-law sent us cards for Christmas, and they arrived about a week early. So lots of our friends got stuff from Borders this year.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:25 AM on January 5, 2005


The discussion of gift cards as a new phenomenon is off a bit. Gift certificates have been around forever, and that's all a gift card is, in a magnetic-reader-swipable, non-recyclable package. I was giving out "gift cards" in the form of paper certificates at my high school job a decade ago.

Are they uncaring? Maybe. I guess, like most things, "it depends." The point about the retailer basically holding your money interest free is a very interesting one.

But the thing that really bugs me is this article -- it is basically an op-ed, with some nickel and dime research the author probably made an intern or a staffer do. But it didn't seem to carry an op-ed label, despite the serious agenda of the author ("gift cards are eeevil, ignorant reader").

I really have no use for this type of "journalism," to abuse the term. But I guess that is what one expects from a place like Slate, where the line between opinion, entertainment, and journalism is irrevocably blurred. What do you know, that old high school teacher that pointed to the dangers of "infotainment" back in '90 had a point.
posted by teece at 11:54 AM on January 5, 2005


I found that most people would give me (borders) gift cards simply because they knew I wanted a book, but didn't know which book I wanted. I look at it not as someone bullying me into using a particular store, but rather, knowing which stores I like, but not knowing what item I wanted.

So, this year, I pointed everyone to my Amazon wishlist. I don't have enough people buying gifts for me that I had to worry about duplicates, and most people who had previously gotten me gift cards instead got me one of the books they knew I wanted. So, in my particular case, the gift card was the result of a lack of information.

There's definitely also the lazy approach, whereby the person doesn't want to find a physical gift, but they're already in the store, or they were picking something else up. Gift cards to stores I don't visit are essentially useless, and I usually give them away to someone whom I know shops there.

Some gift cards are definitely evil, though. Take a look at the Terms of Service [pdf] for the CBL Properties Mall Gift Card. This kind of legal baggage shouldn't come with any gift, in my opinion. If you think that's confusing, though, try actually using the CBL gift card at a "participating" store. It was nearly impossible to use the card at all, because some system-integration problems they were having, and absolutely impossible to combine it with a credit card purchase. I'm sure they're ironing out the problems as we speak, or maybe they're just taking their time, holding on to all those gift-card funds.
posted by odinsdream at 11:54 AM on January 5, 2005


Frankly, Borders needs all the giftcard revenue they can get.

Once I received a $20 gift card to FYE. I was mildly disappointed, because I loathe and despise the store, but I had to admit that they have a fairly impressive selection. I stopped in one afternoon, bought a CD for $16.99, and left the remaining value on the card. Later that week, I found myself bereft of guitar picks, so I took out some scissors and turned that card into a $2.38 pick.
posted by Saellys at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2005


I bet some people wouldn't get so many gift cards if they weren't so snooty about setting up a wish list.
posted by Cyrano at 12:01 PM on January 5, 2005


It should be clear from this thread that condemning or championing gift cards en masse is simplistic and presumptuous. They are perfect for some situations and people and a poor choice for others. Once again, there's no substitute for using your own judgement.

Certainly they are a great deal for the retailer that issues them, but that really has no bearing whatsoever on whether they are a good deal or not for the purchaser and/or receipient.
posted by rushmc at 12:11 PM on January 5, 2005


So get to know your friends well enough that you can choose them a book or a movie or whatever. Is it really that hard? I understand getting gift cards from family who don't know your tastes, but jesus, from someone close - a personal friend or a lover - a gift card is just a way of saying "I don't know you well enough to know what you want." And that is tacky.

I spend weeks figuring out something good - I look at things people already have, books for instance, on amazon.com and go through the related books or suchlike until I find something that looks both obscure enough that they won't have it and good enough that they'll appreciate it. It's not that hard. if you give a crap about the recipient, it's well worth it.
posted by u.n. owen at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2005


I hate gift cards myself - because the ones I get always seem to be to Best Buy.

I don't want to buy music at Best Buy because it devalues the product (I'll leave that to another discussion), and I don't buy a whole lot of DVD's, because I can rent them, and there's not a ton of movies I really feel the need to OWN.

That leaves me with:

Overpriced computer gadgets
overpriced digital cameras
overpriced video games
overpriced appliances
overpriced ... oh, you get the picture...

Every time I get a gift card to best buy, I find myself plodding around all over the store looking at stuff going "oh, that's neat... oh, it's $150, and I could get it for $109 online... it'd be stupid to waste this $50 gift card towards it"...

Basically, I'm now forced to either buy stuff I probably wouldn't have wanted enough to buy in the first place, or to buy something overpriced and basically waste the gift card, since I could easily have bought the item cheaper online or elsewhere..

blah to gift cards.
posted by twiggy at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2005


Count me in the group that says gift cards are -- well, I wouldn't have said evil, but stupid.

Cash is superior because I can spend it where I want to and without losing value if I don't use it right away.

Don't like giving cash? Why, do you really think a gift card shows you expended more effort in its selection?
posted by pmurray63 at 12:44 PM on January 5, 2005


Going off topic...I noticed a few people not liking Borders at all. When I worked downtown before 9/11, I would be there at least twice a week for my lunch hour. Of course I would then go home and buy what I wanted from Amazon or Ebay.

But yeah, like some others posted, I don't get the gift thing for special occasions. It's better to get a gift for no reason at all.
posted by MrMulan at 1:31 PM on January 5, 2005


So get to know your friends well enough that you can choose them a book or a movie or whatever. Is it really that hard? I understand getting gift cards from family who don't know your tastes, but jesus, from someone close - a personal friend or a lover - a gift card is just a way of saying "I don't know you well enough to know what you want." And that is tacky.


One of my good friends knows I'm a big reader, and she's quite familiar with my tastes. Every year on my birthday she gives me a book. Three years running, I've said 'Oh! Yes! I loved this book! It was so great!' and then given it back to her to return since there's no point in her spending money on a book I already own.

She knows me and knows my tastes so well that she invariably buys me things I already own. Getting me a gift card to Chapters would save us both a lot of trouble.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:38 PM on January 5, 2005


How about this . . . it's good to give gift cards to people who like gift cards, because that's a thoughtful gift. Whereas it's not good to give gift cards to people who don't like gift cards, because that is not a thoughtful gift.

And . . . so what?
posted by kyrademon at 1:45 PM on January 5, 2005


Cash seems even worse than gift cards. "I was so lazy and thoughtless that I couldn't even be bothered to buy you a gift card. Here's a twenty!"
posted by DieHipsterDie at 1:45 PM on January 5, 2005


Au contraire - gift cards are PERFECT, a spot-on representation of just how phony, forced, and plastic the holiday season has become. The only way it could be improved is if the money was automatically transferred from your account to everyone on your list in early October, when the giftmas decorations start going up at Sears.

/bah.
posted by davelog at 1:46 PM on January 5, 2005


Somehow I am reminded of a skit by Jerry Seinfeld (which eventually found its way into the book SeinLanguage) where he says that gift certificates are "nothing more than an 'I don't give a damn' diploma." He goes on to mention how they have the fancy borders on them, to make them appear all official, while still showing a large degree of contempt for the reciever.

This was, of course, well before gift cards began appearing to replace certificates...at least the certificates ALL had an amount clearly visible.
posted by mystyk at 2:02 PM on January 5, 2005


My aunt often gives gift cards for a local books-CD-video store to her niece and nephew (my sister's offspring), for a few reasons:
  1. Although my aunt and the offspring live several hours apart, the chain in question has stores in both towns
  2. My aunt wants to get the kids "a CD" or "a DVD" or "a game" for Christmas, but even with a printed list, is not necessarily immune to getting the wrong album or DVD among several marketed to look exactly alike (for example, getting an old "Spider-Man" direct-to-video animation instead of the Tobey Macguire movie)
  3. If the particular item is not in stock before Christmas, it probably will be in early January, and the kids can get it then
We're careful about what gift cards we give, though. A few years back, we got my dad movie theater gift certificates, and only after using the first one on the holiday weekend did we realize that they all expired in six months. Not devalued, expired. We don't go see movies there anymore, and we never buy gift cards or certificates without checking for expiration dates.
posted by mdeatherage at 2:02 PM on January 5, 2005


I understand getting gift cards from family who don't know your tastes, but jesus, from someone close - a personal friend or a lover - a gift card is just a way of saying "I don't know you well enough to know what you want." And that is tacky.

Not necessarily. I have a friend who is a voracious reader. She has more books than I could count - two entire walls covered in them. The few times I gave her books as gifts, she already had them. So I nailed her tastes dead on. I knew her tastes so well I repeatedly bought her books she already had. So I usually end up getting her something small and personal AND a giftcard to a bookstore. And she always squeals more over the giftcard than anything else.

On preview, exactly what jacquilynne said, in reverse.
posted by LeeJay at 2:04 PM on January 5, 2005


I think that kyrademon has it exactly right. If someone wants a gift card, then it's a fine gift. If someone doesn't want a gift card, then it's a lousy gift.

I used to get gift cards to bookstores and record stores for my brother's (now ex-) stepkids, because I didn't know them that well, but felt weird about just giving them cash. They seemed quite happy with the gift cards (which weren't my only gifts to them, anyway).

I have also given gift cards to Target instead of pricey baby gifts to new parents who were hurting for cash, because I figured that they could use $100 worth of diapers, etc., a hell of a lot more than a hand-embroidered bonnet imported from France or whatever other useless gift I would give them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:05 PM on January 5, 2005


And, what LeeJay said. A small, thoughtfully chosen gift with a gift card says both "I know what you like" and "Here's a way you can get some more of it when you feel like it".
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:06 PM on January 5, 2005


...a gift card is just a way of saying "I don't know you well enough to know what you want." And that is tacky.

I spend weeks figuring out something good - I look at things people already have, books for instance, on amazon.com and go through the related books or suchlike until I find something that looks both obscure enough that they won't have it...


So "I don't know you well enough to know what you want" is a tacky message to send, but "I knew you didn't have this because it's obscure and you're not clever enough to have found it on your own" is perferctly OK?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:09 PM on January 5, 2005


One Christmas I got four copies of Robert MacNeil's hideously banal The Story of English. Four.

I would rather have a gift card to Bucket o' Cocks Emporium than that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:19 PM on January 5, 2005


And to think, I love getting gift cards. :-(
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 2:23 PM on January 5, 2005


I like getting gift cards more than cash.

Unless you give me an absurdly large quantity of cash, I won't even notice it. With a gift card, I find myself with a hankering for steak... and hey, I have a gift card for a dinner at Morton's. Problem solved, and that meal is from somebody in particular.

Or alternately I'll have a few minutes to kill, and be passing one of the megabookstores... well sure enough, I have some gift cards in my wallet. Now I can go splurge on a book or two guilt-free, and it's one that I really want, and don't already have.

I have nothing against occasion-based gift-giving either. It's silly, but it's a very pleasant type of silliness. That being said, it's no substitute for random gift giving.
posted by mosch at 2:30 PM on January 5, 2005


I pity the poor, unwanted gift cards. Send them to me and I'll spend take care of them.
posted by deborah at 2:35 PM on January 5, 2005


Did you ever see Donnie Brasco, where Johnny Depp and Al
Pacino exchange Christmas gifts? They give each other cash and they
both seem happy with their gifts.

Mafiosi are not the only ones who consider cash a good gift. Many
Greeks (and I'm sure other cultures as well) think of cash as the
perfect gift. Consider that my parents' generation (I'm 47) have seen
very hard times (not enough to food eat or warm clothes clothes to
wear). During the 1950s and later, many of them emigrated from Greece to
other countries and sending a $5 or $10 bill to someone back in the
old country was the ultimate gift.

Things have changed since then but even today, when visiting
Greece, dropping a 50 or 100 Euro note on a nephew or niece is not
only considered good form but very much appreciated. I continue my
own form of the tradition here in the US. I have negotiated a "no
gifts" policy with all my adult relatives. For the young-uns, I buy
each a small token gift (such a book) and add cash to the package.
Even the young-uns on my wife's (non-Greek) side of the family seem
to love cash gifts.
posted by a_day_late at 2:35 PM on January 5, 2005


One other angle in favor of a gift card is that one can use the card to introduce someone to a new and interesting place. Once, I bought my father a gift card to a tool store he had never been to. Ever since his initial visit to redeem the card, he has been addicted to the place and goes all the time.

The gift wasn't so much the value on the face of the card, it was more the introduction to a new place that he really enjoyed. Getting some "free" stuff while he was there was an added bonus.
posted by jester69 at 2:41 PM on January 5, 2005


I agree completely what rushmc, kyrademon, and Sidhedevil have said.

On the "gift card vs. cash" issue, my personal opinion is that a gift card is better than cash because cash tends to find its way back to "general funds" and there's a decent chance it will be forgotten and never actually used to buy a gift, thus devaluing the sentiment.

However, the real crappiest gift of all time is the lottery ticket. Norm MacDonald used to do a great riff on getting a lottery ticket as a gift: "Wow. Thanks. You got me ... nothing. I've always wanted ... nothing."

I would rather have a gift card to Bucket o' Cocks Emporium than that.

Why would you want to support such a huge corporate behemoth!! Don't you realize that the Bucket o' Cocks Emporium is driving all the little mom-and-pop Bucket o' Cocks stores out of business ?!?
posted by pardonyou? at 2:41 PM on January 5, 2005


Why hasn't a 'mastercard gift card' or American Express pre-paid card been created?

Just saying.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:59 PM on January 5, 2005


IF you are gonna give cash, consider it in 'precious metal' coins. Like Platinum $10, $25, $50, and $100 if you are american.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:04 PM on January 5, 2005


Er, rough ashlar... they have.
posted by eschatfische at 3:10 PM on January 5, 2005


I dealt with a customer the other week who was upset that we could only give her store credit for a gift receipt return (a store credit is essentially a gift card), she complained that she never shops at our store so doesn't see why she shouldn't get cash back. The thing is, our store sells books, movies, CDs, magazines, and coffee and the store credits are good indefinitely.

Maybe she has no use for books, movies, CDs, magazines, or coffee?

This Xmas I got a jacket from my father that he purchased from Eddie Bauer (do you guys have Eddie Bauer in the US?). The jacket was nice enough, but didn't fit. I had a gift receipt and intended to exchange the jacket for one that would fit, however Eddie Bauer was completely sold out. I asked for a refund, but would only give me a gift certificate/store credit.

Now, I have never purchased anything in Eddie Bauer before. I took a look around and there was nothing that I would wear, nor nothing I could use. So, the credit is essentially useless to me (unless there is some use in buying something I don't want/need).

Why is it that stores like this don't just issue a cash refund? Why even offer gift receipts at all then? A store credit is normally reserved for people who are returning something without any sort of receipt.

In all my years of working retail, the case was always that we would issue gift reciepts so that recipients could refund the gift without having a copy of the original reciept.
posted by fizz-ed at 3:11 PM on January 5, 2005


If someone gives me money I always feel like I should spend it on something useful, but if I get a gift card to Chapters or Famous Players or wherever, I'm gleeful. I've been enabled to just splurge!

Anyone who would find a gift card so problematic needs to find an actual problem to worry about. Go watch some tsunami coverage.
posted by orange swan at 3:27 PM on January 5, 2005


What a_day_late said. Among South Asians cash is considered the perfect gift for kids.

For women, it's jewelry. Especially gold, they loooove gold.

Men? I dunno, maybe a gift card. :)
posted by exhilaration at 3:29 PM on January 5, 2005


My favorite is recieving cash earmarked for a specific purpose. "Here's some money. Buy X with it." Otherwise people have to guess at my exacting and sometimes esoteric tasts. It's much more convenient than a Best Buy card, and indeed can be as specific to my tastes as the giver cares to be.

The difference between this and a gift card is that the giver is suggesting WHAT my present is, instead of WHERE I should buy it. If I'm going to do the legwork of the shopping, at least let me go where I want!

All of the gifts I've gotten like that are from one side of my family - the other half doesn't seem to think that cash is an acceptable gift (though a gift card, for some reason, is).
posted by aubilenon at 3:32 PM on January 5, 2005


fizz-ed: yeah, we have Eddie Bauer in the states -- I have even used a gift card there!

Why is it that stores like this don't just issue a cash refund? Why even offer gift receipts at all then? A store credit is normally reserved for people who are returning something without any sort of receipt.

Some combination of greed, as it helps their bottom-line, and theft prevention, as giving cash back makes it much more appealing for thieves to steal stuff and bring it back and have the store act as a full-price fence.
posted by teece at 3:32 PM on January 5, 2005


...theft prevention, as giving cash back makes it much more appealing for thieves to steal stuff and bring it back and have the store act as a full-price fence.

Sure, but thieves wouldn't have a gift reciept. My problem is when you can't get a cash refund from an item when you have a gift reciept that was issued to the buyer at the time of purchase.

If I was returning something without any sort of reciept or proof of purchase, then I could understand the store credit or even them refusing to offer me anything in exchange (I wouldn't like it, but I would understand it).
posted by fizz-ed at 3:40 PM on January 5, 2005


I LOOOOVE gift cards. Especially since my mom's taste and my own differ so dramatically. And any cash I would get invariably winds up taking care of a household need or a broke teenager.
posted by konolia at 3:52 PM on January 5, 2005


Some combination of greed, as it helps their bottom-line, and theft prevention, as giving cash back makes it much more appealing for thieves to steal stuff and bring it back and have the store act as a full-price fence.

"Yeah, I'd like to return these knives..."
"Why? Is something wrong with them?"
"...ah, yea...they aren't.... Sharp enough."

Does anyone know more about the legality of stores not offering cash refunds if you have a receipt of purchase and undamaged merchandise? It seems that there would be some law (even if it's only state-by-state), that says cash refunds must be offered under certain circumstances. I could understand charging a restocking fee... but is it really legal to only offer store credit?

The only thing that really bugs me about gift cards is the behind-the-scenes financial stuff. The large companies are essentially acting as banks, but they're releasing currency with expiration dates on it. Is this really legal? Have there been any court cases involving expired gift cards? Gift card purchases are essentially no-contract loans to these companies. Are there any rules regarding this transient income? Does it have to be reported, or only the interest they make on it, plus whatever cash might be left over when it's time to do the books? I'm obviously not a lawyer.
posted by odinsdream at 4:13 PM on January 5, 2005


nathanrudy wrote:
Retail stores make tons of money off gift cards that are lost or unused (if there is a time limit). Essentially they get $10, $25, $50 or more and do nothing but give out a little plastic card in return. Great deal for the retailer!

Actually, in many instances this is untrue. Most retailers that use gift cards (as opposed to paper gift certificates) don't count that as a "sale" -- the purchase of the gift card doesn't count as revenue until someone redeems the card. (In part because many big-box chains have many locations, so this ensures that the location where the g.c. was redeemed gets to count the sale in its figures.)
posted by dryad at 4:18 PM on January 5, 2005


I just got married. Nearly every gift we received was in the form of cash or gift cards. Which is something of a shame.

Don't get me wrong-- the gift cards to Home Depot are going to come in handy when we paint the living room-- but twenty years from now we won't be admiring the silver candlesticks that we got from Aunt Frieda, instead we will be looking at the spackle on the walls, "Oh yeah, that was a gift from your aunt at our wedding."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:18 PM on January 5, 2005


drezdn: The writer overlooked the one true major problem with gift cards, most are made with plastic and aren't recycled.

I'm not sure what other store's policies on this are, but the local chain that I work at will, when possible, reuse the old gift cards so as to not create too much waste.

Anyone know if this is standard practice?
posted by fizz-ed at 4:52 PM on January 5, 2005


Does anyone know more about the legality of stores not offering cash refunds if you have a receipt of purchase and undamaged merchandise? It seems that there would be some law (even if it's only state-by-state), that says cash refunds must be offered under certain circumstances. I could understand charging a restocking fee... but is it really legal to only offer store credit?

Laws don't generally require refunds under any circumstances. Stores are perfectly within their rights to offer no refund or exchange at all. They do so as a matter of customer service, because if they didn't, people would get mad and shop elsewhere.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:08 PM on January 5, 2005


I just want to know who would buy a McDonald's gift card.

My Wife. Her 84 Y.O. grandmother who lives in a small town in the cultural wasteland of Florida loves McDonalds.

A) Because it's convenient to her home and she cannot drive. Hell. She can barely walk.
B) She has all the "material things" she will ever need.
C) She is frigg'n 84... not like she is worried about a heart attack at this point. In fact her biggest problem - common with the elderly - is consuming ENOUGH calories and fat.
D) She lives on her paltry social security.
E) All the her old lady friends go there because there are no other cafes in that area.

BTW: This dude is full of shit. Gift cards ROCK! 90% of the gifts extended family give me is wasted crap I don't need or want. I think that is true for most people. You save gift cards for when you NEED something. Yes. Actually need.

I just got married. Nearly every gift we received was in the form of cash or gift cards. Which is something of a shame.

Trust me in ten years when you go through the attic for twentieth time wondering HOW you accumulated so much junk you would more likely go "What in the f... is this crap... Ooooh yeah.. Aunt Sofie gave us her precious crystal poodle..."

Home Depot gift cards in particular RULE.
posted by tkchrist at 6:16 PM on January 5, 2005


Here in NZ a lot of the stores don't even bother with a card or certificate. They just print out a special docket from the cash register receipt printer. Horrible shiny crispy paper things with scratchy black ink. Then they put it in an envelope to make you feel better. It doesn't work. It's so real certificates don't get nicked, I suppose, but handing someone a limp receipt for a gift has no satisfaction whatsoever. My theory - the envelope's too big to fit in a wallet, so the crappy receipt goes in there, gets forgotten, and is then chucked out in the next receipt-purge.
posted by slightlybewildered at 6:51 PM on January 5, 2005


Laws don't generally require refunds under any circumstances. Stores are perfectly within their rights to offer no refund or exchange at all. They do so as a matter of customer service, because if they didn't, people would get mad and shop elsewhere.

I was mostly thinking along the lines of stores that offer a refund to begin with, but the refund is in the form of store credit. I was thinking of states that don't allow limited warranties. You're free to not offer a warranty, but if you do offer one, it cannot be limited. Likewise, I figured there might be a similar law, i.e., you don't have to offer a refund, but if you do, it must not be limited to store credit. Just a thought.
posted by odinsdream at 6:53 PM on January 5, 2005


I once got a messenger bag for Christmas, and every pocket had a different gift card for stores I like: $20 for the Gap, $20 for Barnes and Noble, $20 for local yarn store, etc. This was some time ago, back when I was a teenager, and I thought it was an AWESOME gift. It showed that the giver knew what I like, and acknowledged that I'd rather pick stuff out for myself.
posted by bonheur at 7:11 PM on January 5, 2005


I think the essential disagreement is about whether a gift is 'more stuff' or 'an exchange between two people.' Cash or gift cards or wish lists are fine if it's just a way to accumulate, but ideally a gift is one person introducing the other to something new - you know someone and look around and find something they wouldn't get themselves, or might not come across on their own, but which you think will still be interesting or exciting or fun to them. And ideally gifts say something about both parties - about what you have in common or where your interests cross (eg, my sister's boyfriend likes cowboys; I like books; he got me a pair of cowboy themed bookends - which are surprisingly cute and quite useful)

People don't really have time for these kinds of gifts anymore, and information is so overwhelming and available that it's tough to really find something special, but it is still kind of sad. Like someone said above, eventually we'll just have the banks transfer funds between our accounts in november...
posted by mdn at 7:59 PM on January 5, 2005


Mafiosi are not the only ones who consider cash a good gift. Many Greeks (and I'm sure other cultures as well) think of cash as the perfect gift.

As do Koreans. My wife is still somewhat baffled when I insist that giving cash to my folks would be a little insulting. On the other hand, we shoot her parents some cash all the time, and I'm very cool with that.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2005


Sure, but thieves wouldn't have a gift reciept. My problem is when you can't get a cash refund from an item when you have a gift reciept that was issued to the buyer at the time of purchase.

The store would most likely lose some money on the transaction, and it would increase theft.

How? Unless if the item was originally paid for with cash, the store probably had to pay a fee for the credit transaction. Or, they paid with a check and there's the chance the check didn't clear. At least by giving up store credit, the store loses less, but if stores gave more than in store credit for a gift receipt, the chances for fraud also increase.

People who write checks could easily gift gift receipts (which, at least at my retail job, don't tell how the original transaction was paid for), then retun the item with a gift receipt for cash, while the check bounces. Another possibility for fraud would be returning the item with the receipt, then going to another store with the gift receipt, pulling that item off the shelf and returning that for cash too. As I said before, it can still happen, but at least the customers are only getting store credit. There's other ways you could game the system, and there are ways stores could prevent this things, but it's just a short list.

Also, this may not be true in all cases, but many of the posters above are making the mistake of thinking a gift receipt is the same as a regular receipt. It's often not, ours clearly state that it's merely a proof of purchase. A gift receipt is merely as a way to ensure the person gets the full amount you paid in store credit for the person you're shopping for.

In some instances, I've had customers comment on how they want the people they're buying gifts for not be able to get cash back.

In response to the poster who said "maybe the person didn't like CDs, Magazines, books etc." The store this happened in can order pretty much any book in print, most albums that are available, or movies too. It sells cheesecake, bagels, sodas, plush toys, board games, calendars and bottled water. I would be shocked to meet someone who wouldn't buy something from one of those categories. It's understandable at a clothing store or some place serving a really narrow niche but I just can't see it here.

As someone else pointed out, gift cards don't show up as positive sales until they're redeemed. This is one of the reasons why retail sales figures were down before Christmas, everyone was buying gift cards. From a store perspective, in can be frustrating because it's hard to make sales goals when everyone's buying gift cards instead of product. The advantage is that it helps smooth out the sales wastelands of Jan. and Feb. because people come in to cash in the cards.
posted by drezdn at 9:55 PM on January 5, 2005


The worst thing about gift cards are the "gotchas" that so many places slip in - the expiration date, the service fee, the dormancy fee, et cetera ad nauseum. California has rules stating that most gift cards can't carry expiration dates and service fees, which is a good thing for me considering I usually lose and/or forget about my gift cards for months at a time.

That said, I still greatly prefer gift cards to actual gifts from several of my relatives. They say it's the thought that counts, but what were they thinking?
posted by Aster at 9:56 PM on January 5, 2005


Sure, but thieves wouldn't have a gift reciept. My problem is when you can't get a cash refund from an item when you have a gift reciept that was issued to the buyer at the time of purchase.

fizz-ed: thieves are crafty. Firstly, if a thief is dedicated, he cat buy one legit. item, and steal 5. He then proceeds to 5 different chains and gets cash. There is the issue of checks: the thief can buy with a fraudulent check (pretty common when I was in retail, harder I imagine now, with checks becoming essentially like credit cards). There is also the simple issue that the average store receipt is not all that hard to forge. Lastly, if there is any situation in which a thief can get cash, said thief will work hard to get it, by giving a convincing story, flirting with the sails clerk, etc. to get the clerk to bend the rules and overlook their missing receipt.

Lastly, most company theft is done by employees, who are going to have a much easier time dealing with the issue of a lack of legit. receipt.

I think that at the end of the day, loss prevention people figure a policy of zero cash back makes all of these problems go away -- if no cash is ever to go from store to customer, any time it does fraud has taken place.
posted by teece at 10:26 PM on January 5, 2005


RE employee theft and gift receipts... Now that you mention it, it would be easy for employees (if stores gave cash back) to print up gift receipts on transactions then steal the items and have their friends return them with gift receipts.

Why wouldn't a smart employee do the same thing for store credit? It's a lot easier to track store credit than cash. For example, Loss Prevention could probably make the connection as soon as an employee foolishly uses their employee number to get the discount when they purchase something with the store credit.
posted by drezdn at 10:47 PM on January 5, 2005


Well, as part of an inheritance, my mother got my wife and I four $250 prepaid VISA cards. They went for everything from groceries, to a washer, dryer, and fridge, to moving costs and emergency purchases (new house), to registering a copy of Trillian Pro for my wife...

Now that struck me as a thoughtful gift.
posted by Samizdata at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2005


I have met one single example of where a gift card is better than cash -- when given to someone who would have had to share the cash with a significant other, or otherwise spend it wisely. A gift card to a store where only indulgance can be bought can, in this case, be better than cash.

At all other times, gift cards are stupid and/or lazy.

"Oh and look, it's got a little expiry date"
posted by krisjohn at 12:08 AM on January 6, 2005


krisjohn- I can think of one more very clear example. When the person who is getting a gift will have to travel a distance with it to go home (IE plane or train). I was given a new sewing machine (heavy) and case (large and bulky) from my parents this past Christmas. I couldn't put the sewing machine in the case as it would have prevented me from returning/exchanging it had it proved defective. So I got to carry both large cumbersome boxes onto a jampacked train, across a station, onto another crowded train, and across another station to get them home.

You know what would have been great? A picture of the sewing machine from the sale ad, and a gift card for the cost of the machine, case, and sales tax.

I do agree with the indulgence point, though. The cash I got for Christmas went to gas money, car insurance, groceries, etc. The gift cards/certificates went to a new skirt, video games, and today I'm getting a cd.
posted by Kellydamnit at 6:35 AM on January 6, 2005


Agree with article, but for different reasons. Even if it is a visa debit card with a pre-loaded balance. It is the fee starting the second time you check your balance. Plus the inconvenience versus cash. Free interest aside, they pick up the pennies you leave behind (or lose), charge fees, and actively start draining the account 6 months out.

Here's the logic I see behind a visa gift card:
"People spend outrageous money during the holiday season. We've already got our hands on some of that with gift cards. But how do we get our hands on the cash people give each other? I know! We'll sell them pre-loaded visa debit cards. We'll tell them it is safer and smarter than cash!"
posted by jmccorm at 8:39 AM on January 6, 2005


I don't know. I have over 1000 books, so when someone gives me a gift card for a bookstore they're honoring what I like without having to figure out what books I want/don't have.

They also had to go to the store to buy the card, and that's as much time sacrifice as getting an actual book while they're there.

You could argue this is a step above doing the Amazon wishlist thing.

Another thing is that I don't need more crap in the house. Instead of the 'ol father-in-law compulsively buying us an unnecessary appliance every year, letting the family decide what to get isn't such a bad idea.

Better yet, we don't need anything, but people just won't listen. Of course, meaningful gifts are welcome, but you can take your Boxing Champ Cookery and knock yourself in the head with it.
posted by freethought at 10:32 AM on January 6, 2005


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