Types of Gift Cards
Gift cards may be restricted to a single establishment or offer a choice of several. Single-store cards are the least flexible, but may offset that with a larger discount or other perks. Some large corporations offer a card that is good at all their subsidiaries, which may include many different types of stores and restaurants. Malls and other shopping centers often have a collective card good for any store or other business on their premises. Yiftree's Community Gift Card links participating merchants within a given area. A whole different branch holds the bank cards, related to credit cards, which are good anywhere that uses a specific payment network such as MasterCard. These are among the most flexible, and some have a far higher limit (up to $5000) than store gift cards (rarely more than $500). However, they're also the most prone to hidden fees.
Cards may be single-use or reloadable. Some bank cards are reloadable, others not. Some single establishment categories are very often reloadable such as restaurant, music, gas, or phone cards. These are ideal if you wish to help support someone over time, such as a college student, aging parent, or long-distance friend. It also works great for anyone who's a huge fan of a particular place.
Don't forget other things which are analogs of gift cards. On a few occasions I've had one fan pass me a donation earmarked for "whatever so-and-so wants." Then I just mark the poem "sponsored by A as a gift for B." Many crafters and other creative folks will do things like this, even if they don't have the plastic kind of gift cards or paper certificates, so ask.
Here's a look at several types of promotional gift cards used by small businesses such as retail, mall, and gas cards.
Browse a chart showing the best gift cards scored by poularity, discount, resale value, retailer rating, and shipping fees.
Tips for Buyers
Think about how well you know the recipient. If you know their favorite stores, check which one offers the best deal on gift cards and get that. If you don't know the person well, then either get a card that can be used many places, or a card for a place that sells many different things such as a mall or department store.
Consider what the recipient wants or needs. For holidays or birthdays, many people like luxuries they wouldn't buy for themselves, so consider cards for a nice restaurant, an upscale boutique, a massage or spa, etc. When someone moves, has a baby, lands in the hospital, or some other life event upsets their budget then a card for basics or a flexible card is most welcome.
Try to pick a unique card if multiple choices are available. Big stores like supermarkets, bank cards, and online hubs all tend to offer a dozen or more options. It's a lot easier for a recipient to distinguish between cards that have different art on them.
Some gift cards have a protection plan so they can be reported lost or stolen, thus freezing the balance and transferring it to a new card. This makes them safer than cash -- and a good option for youth, elders, or others with difficulty keeping track of things.
If you routinely give cards, then consider keeping a small selection of your favorites (supermarket, best local restaurant, etc.) in a card organizer for use on occasions when you suddenly need a gift. Cards for a local restaurant or supermarket also make perfect gifts for homeless or similarly distressed people, while still giving you a little influence over the easiest way to use that resource. For this, get the kind of gift cards that either don't expire or have a very long lead time; 5 years is common.
Gift cards are also great when you have an externally applied budget, such as a gift exchange where everyone is supposed to spend $10. The flexibility is also an asset, and for this reason, some organizations have a gift card exchange among their members instead of specific gifts. Everyone gets something they'll like, and you've all spent almost exactly the same amount (allowing for small variations in fees).
When shopping for local recipients, use the opportunity to support local businesses. Many crafters and other specialists offer great goods and services that are a little pricier than most people want to spend on themselves. These make ideal gifts. A particularly brilliant plan is Yiftree's Community Gift Card which links participating merchants in your town -- the card is good at any of them.
Use gift cards to extend your reach. Your long-distance friend is moving? Housewarming cards include bank cards and store cards for home-improvement places. Someone's getting hitched? Wedding cards include bank cards, craft stores for pre-wedding supplies, and spoil-yourself honeymoon goodies. The stork is coming? Baby cards include bank cards, child-specific things like the Children's Place, and this brilliant plan of matching cards for older sibling(s) and new baby. Just because you personally can't haul boxes or babysit, doesn't mean you can't help.
If you can't go shopping together for health, distance, or other limitations, consider a virtual shopping trip. Send a gift card. Arrange a time you'll both be available. Your recipient can chat on the phone with you and/or send you snapshots of possible gifts while in the store! I have seen people doing that more and more often. For some folks, it's a valuable way to stay in touch. Just because you can't be there in person needn't prevent you from sharing the joys of "Ooo, that blue one would match your favorite sweater," or "Aaa, no, the flowered one makes you look like a couch!"
Conversely, if you are shopping for someone who has trouble getting to stores, choose an online merchant. Many places will now deliver clothes, groceries, and other essentials. Amazon will deliver darn near anything. Gift cards from these providers make life much more convenient for the shopping or travel challenged population. Some even offer electronic gift cards so you don't need to mess with a plastic one.
Remember presentation. Gift cards often come with an envelope, but you can also buy fun frames or even puzzle boxes. For children, you might put it in a box with a handful of coins or bells to make it jingle, or a package of candy, so they have some fun when opening it. Traditionally a purse or wallet should never be presented empty, so consider a gift card instead of the usual coin or dollar bill.
Tips for Recipients
Gift cards have their pros and cons, so some folks like them and others don't. Let people know whether or not you like gift cards. If you like them, it helps to list your favorite type(s) of cards and/or stores. Some folks feel that gift cards are rude, while others are merely uncertain. You're unlikely to budge anyone who thinks it's a horrible thing to do, but you can usually tip someone who simply doesn't know if you'd like it.
If someone in your circle is awful at picking gifts, you may gently open the topic of other approaches. Gift cards are only one; hiring a personal shopper, going shopping together, or pooling funds with a more skilled gifter can also work.
Organize your gift cards. If Aunt April sends you a card with flowers on it, you might use that for garden supplies and Aunt June's confetti card for craft supplies. Try to remember whose card you use to buy which gifts.
Use gift cards promptly unless you are saving matched ones for a specific big-ticket item. This minimizes the risk of losing or forgetting about them.
When you pick out your gifts, let the sender know what they bought for you. This closes the loop and makes it more fun than if the gift card just disappears into a black hole. You can wear/carry the item the next time you see the sender (good for locals), write a thank-you note (good for baby or wedding cards), make a phone call (good for family and close friends), or post snapshots/descriptions online (good for your social-network friends). Over time, they may figure out what you like if you consistently treat yourself to the same things. Posting online also gives you a chance to share the fun with your other friends who aren't at that gift-giving occasion.
Gift cards also give you an idea what the other person considers reasonable to spend. Bear in mind that some relationships are inherently unequal -- parents will usually spend more on their kids, and a friend with a high-paying job may enjoy spreading the bounty. But most gifts are exchanged among people who want to stay fairly close in level. If your jogging buddy customarily gives you a $20 gift card, that's a good target whether you buy an individual gift or a card. And if you choose a card, make it for a different place than yours was for.
If you're opening gifts at an occasion such as birthday, holidays, a party, etc. and you come to a gift card, then try riffing a few ideas what you will do with it. If you're getting a lot of them, jot down the ideas the envelopes -- although you may change your mind if you get four cards for the same place that'll let you buy the expensive crib nobody picked up. This is another way to show people that giving gift cards is okay and welcome. Plus it's fun to brainstorm, because people may have seen things at that store which you haven't noticed. "Oh, you got one for the sporting goods store, have you seen their new camo prints? They're sorted by tree species!"
What are some of your ideas regarding gift cards?