Shuffling the Cards


Stack of gift cardsThere’s a fine line between organized and obsessive, and I teeter on it every year around this time, as I scramble to get my holiday cards perfected and my holiday shopping completed.

I’m happy to report that my holiday cards are in the mail, and so I’m on to my shopping. Which also, as it turns out, involves cards. I buy plenty of physical gifts, but more and more I find myself throwing gift cards into the mix—especially for professional use. Which got me to wondering about their impact—in particular the differences between merchant cards and pre-loaded bank debit cards.

Here’s what I found:

Gift Cards Cash Cards

What they are:
Gift cards are merchant-specific cards which store a fixed value for a merchant.

Who issues them: Gift cards are issued by the individual store, service or restaurant. Many parent companies will issue cards which can be used at all of their stores. (Example: Williams Sonoma issues gift cards that can be used at Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, West Elm, etc.)


  • no maintenance fees
  • companies are required to print any expiry information on the card
  • thoughtful—choice of card can reflect the personal tastes of the recipient
  • offer a range of choice
  • some can be linked to buyer programs to access perks—such as Starbucks’ rewards program
  • often available in e-card or phone app form
  • some can be delivered over social media networks such as Facebook


  • a gift card can be redeemed only through the company or network which issues it
  • seen as less personal than a gift

What they are:
Prepaid or bank cards act like non-personalized debit cards, storing a fixed sum of currency.

Who issues them: Most cash cards are branded with a credit service such as Visa, Mastercard or American Express.  Often there is a “middleman” company or bank who issues and maintains the card.


  • flexibility
  • widely accepted
  • sometimes come with purchase protection
  • sometimes available electronically


  • many have hidden expiration dates
  • often have costly fees for maintenance or to check your balance
  • often have fees for inactivity can deplete the balance
  • impersonal
  • often spent on bills


Actually, merchant gift cards have grown over recent years to be quite popular. Our own Mood Tracker research shows that merchant gift cards are more popular than cash, when employees select a reward worth $50.

And according to the National Retail Federation’s 2012 Holiday Consumer Spending Survey, gift cards top this year’s wish list.  Six out of every ten shoppers (59.8 percent) said they’d like to receive a gift card. That’s the highest figure ever for this survey—up two points from last year.  To put that into perspective: 49 percent of those surveyed said they would like clothing and 46 percent books, CDs, DVDs, videos or video games. The gift card industry is expected to reach $100 billion in sales by the end of this year, according to the research firm Tower Group.

Why are gift cards so popular?

Gift cards are great gifts
They’re a better gift than cash or cash cards. Sure, people love cash and they love the flexibility of a cash card. But when you give a gift—whether in a professional or personal way—the objective is to provide a reward.  Too often, cash cards go to pay for gas or groceries or other practical purchases. If you really want to treat someone, a gift card is a more fun alternative.  You can pick out a store or restaurant that they really like, to show you’re being thoughtful, but still offer them the chance to pick out something that will be meaningful to them. You’re giving the gift of shopping!

 Gift cards are not going to cheat you
Federal regulation passed last year abolished short expiration dates and those fees that eat away at your balance. Cards must be good for at least five years— and fees and expiry dates have to be clearly disclosed on the card surface. Store cards generally do not charge inactivity fees.

Gift cards are easy to buy and transport
One year, when I lived on the opposite coast from my family, I had an “envelope Christmas”.  I limited my Christmas list to stuff I could place in an envelope: gift cards, gift certificates, event tickets, etc. When I boarded the plane to come home, I had all my Christmas gifts tucked in my purse. That was probably the easiest shopping year I’ve ever had. And people loved their presents!  (Gift cards are also a lot less expensive to mail, if your friends and employees are remote.)

Likewise, when you’re buying for a large number of folks, like your employees, gift cards are a great solution for bulk purchase. They are universal, easy to distribute and widely appreciated. (I’ll never forget the company I worked for that one year gave away actual real frozen turkeys… what a logistical nightmare.)

Gift cards are fair
When giving gifts to a large number of people—whether aquaintances or staffers— you usually want to be sure that you’re being fair and spending about the same amount on each. Giftcards are a good way to be sure no one is secretly comparing price tags and coming up short.

People don’t return gift cards
If your gift radar is off, you might just be giving your employees a wait in a long return line or time haggling over return policies. People will generally hang on to a gift card and use it when it is convenient for them.

All in all, I’d say I’m safe adding gift cards to my list of great gifts for friends, family and employees. And I think, so are you!

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