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December 8, 2004

Gift Card Follies


Michael Barbaro wrote a story about the booming business of gift cards for last Saturday's Washington Post Business section.

What a crock.

"Would you want to give someone $1,000 cash or this?" said Marie Toulantis, CEO of Barnesandnoble.com. "This is a much nicer alternative."

She was referring to the company's pricey new gift card package, consisting of a $1,000 gift card together with a pair of stone bookends, each etched with an image of Shakespeare, all delivered in a leather box with satin lining.

Clearly the American public agrees with her, considering that this holiday season alone, U.S. consumers are expected to spend $17.3 billion - yes, the story in the Post said billion, not million - on gift cards.

This is so beyond bizarro to me.

I mean, I would so much prefer the $1,000 cash to the gift card with its tacky packaging.

I'd dump that in the trash as soon as the giver left.

I'm reminded of that hilarious segment on Fox Sports this past Thanksgiving Day during the football game.

Every year, announcer Cris Collinsworth awards some player a goofy-looking trophy of a turkey for being the best player in the Thanksgiving Day game.

It's truly grotesque and ugly.

He gave it to Emmitt Smith once, and the Fox camera showed Smith dumping it in the trash can on his way back to the Dallas Cowboys dressing room.


That's what I'd do with the garbage packaging of the BarnesandNoble.com gift card.

A gift card is annoying because you have to use it at one place when what you really would like to buy is at another store.

That's why this


is the gift card of choice.


1) Never expires

2) Never loses value

3) Most importantly, works everywhere, in any store in the country

Why are gifts cards "much nicer" in the view of a great majority of Americans?

Because money is, at bottom, dirty, evil, and just plain obscene in the Puritan-derived substructure of American society.

It's like sex: pretend it's not what you're interested in.

You know how it goes: when someone says, "It's not the money," it's always about the money.

Here's the story.

    Pushing the Envelope

    Retailers Design Gift Cards to Pack More Presence

    Blanketing the checkout aisle this holiday season: the guilt-free gift card.

    Best Buy is rolling out a card that plays movie previews.

    Barnes & Noble is pairing one with a set of stone bookends.

    And the Container Store is offering an entire line of decorative gift-card holders.

    From department stores to discounters, retailers are using innovative technology and clever packaging to give gift cards a more giftlike form.

    The goal: to make shoppers feel good about giving the gift of plastic - a present that, despite its popularity, has yet to shed its reputation as an unimaginative substitute for a traditional present, industry analysts say.

    Gone, for many retailers, are the days of a simple plastic card presented in a simple paper envelope.

    "That wasn't always enough for consumers who are hesitant to give a gift card," said David Gaston, president of Chicago-based Gaston Advertising Inc., which helps retailers design gift-card programs.

    "People want to make an impact with presentation."

    Gift cards are hardly hurting for customers.

    U.S. consumers are expected to spend $17.3 billion on gift cards this holiday season, up $100 million from last year, according to the National Retail Federation, a Washington-based retail trade group.

    Intense competition for consumers' gift-card dollars is spurring this year's innovation.

    With credit card companies, malls and even restaurants now offering gift cards, retailers say a boring card is a big risk.

    A smattering of options during Christmases past has now mushroomed across the industry.

    "Having the right assortment is very important," said Anne Pratt, director of gift-card services at Best Buy.

    Shoppers say they want gift cards to pack more punch. Alexandria resident Kathy Smarrella, 37, "hates" giving members of her family a gift card in an envelope.

    "It doesn't seem to involve any thought," she said.

    So like many other gift-card givers, Smarrella discovered her own fix - packing the card inside a big box or affixing to a traditional gift.

    "It means more to people that way," she said.

    Retailers picked up on the trend.

    Godiva created a four-piece box of chocolates with a slot, tucked beneath the lid, designed to hold a gift card.

    The chocolates are sold separately from the gift card (for about $5), but the idea has caught on.

    J.C. Penney this year rolled out a series of stuffed animals, each designed to hold a gift card ($1.99 with a gift card over $10).

    So did Hecht's, which added its own twist: cosmetic pouches and compact mirrors with pockets to place gift cards (It charges between $5 and $6 for the plush toys, and $2.50 for the pouch and mirror case.)

    The Container Store this year introduced a variety of gift-card holders, priced from $1.79 to $4.99.

    There is the Polka Dot Gift Card Box, a Perforated Gift Card Pouch and Mesh Gift Card Box.

    Audrey Robertson, a Container Store spokeswoman, called the new line a chance "to further personalize a gift card."

    Why do gift cards - which are, after all, just cash loaded into a piece of plastic - suddenly require so much personalization?

    Linda L. Dunlap, chairwoman of the department of psychology at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said gift givers want gift recipients to remember their gesture.

    Trouble is, when the gift is a gift card alone, the money runs out and card is tossed.

    But when the gift card comes with, say, a stuffed animal, there is a "constant reminder that a gift was given," Dunlap said.

    That's part of the logic behind a pricey new Barnes & Noble gift-card package.

    The store is offering a new $1,000 card.

    It comes with a pair of stone bookends, each etched with an image of Shakespeare, all delivered in a leather box with satin lining.

    "Would you want to give someone $1,000 cash or this?" asked Marie Toulantis, chief executive of Barnes & Noble.com.

    "This is a much nicer alternative."

    Not all of this year's gift-card innovation is focused on packaging.

    Best Buy and Target say they have turned the card itself into an interactive toy.

    Both retailers have introduced a gift-card CD-ROM, a miniature, rectangular version of a standard CD.

    Like traditional gift cards, they can be swiped at a cash register, but when placed inside a computer, they launch video games and movie clips.

    Best Buy's card contains a preview for the upcoming Disney film "Chicken Little" and a short video game featuring Aladdin. Target's card contains two video games.

    The game's main character: Bullseye, Target's canine mascot.

    Another Target gift card is equipped with a sound chip.

    When the SpongeBob SquarePants gift card is squeezed, the Nickelodeon cartoon character begins to laugh - loudly.

    "Kind of gimmicky" was the verdict from Clinton Farrand, 24, a Target shopper who lives in Arlington.

    But Farran's girlfriend, 24-year-old Dresden McIntosh, said the bright yellow laughing gift card is a relief "from all the ugly ones with the name of the store on them."

    Some who receive the dressed-up gift cards say they prefer them over the ho-hum presentation of the same card in a store-branded envelope.

    Noelle Dominguez, a 23-year-old who works on Capitol Hill, received a Best Buy gift card last Christmas from a co-worker.

    For the past several years, the electronics retailer has sold its gift cards in a CD case, making them easier to wrap and, in some cases, tricking recipients into thinking they're opening a music album.

    "I thought it was cute," Dominguez said, "because I like opening presents."

    December 8, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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    2) Never loses value
    Debatable ;) European goods are mighty expensive these days, though I get where you were going. Fortunately nobody I know would ever "give" a $1,000 gift card. Sounds very "hollywood-ish"...

    Posted by: fat kid | Dec 8, 2004 11:57:16 AM

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