What do you buy when you're too lazy to find a real present? Probably a gift card. In a Christmas shopping season that lacked a must-have product, the most successful item may have been that nondescript, infinitely malleable slice of plastic.
SINGLE PAGEYahoo! Buzz FacebookMySpace Mixx Digg Reddit del.icio.us Furl Ma.gnolia SphereStumbleUponCLOSEGift cards, which came on the scene in the late 1990s at Blockbuster and Neiman-Marcus, have spread into every nook of the vast retailing sector. Wal-Mart sells them for as little as $10. Barnes & Noble offers them. Fast-food joints like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts are getting in on the act. So is American Express. A survey released last October by ValueLink, which creates gift cards for companies, estimated that in the previous 12 months, 64 percent of American adults (139 million people!) either bought or received a gift card, up from just 37 percent in 2002.
After Christmas, Bloomberg news reported that sales of gift cards in the 2004 holiday season may have exceeded the National Retail Federation's prediction of $17.3 billion. Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, has suggested that 11 percent of holiday sales may have been embedded in gift cards. And Providence College marketing professor Dan Horne, a gift card specialist, said Americans likely spend between $40 billion and $45 billion annually on gift cards.