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2005 gift card chart
 
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Editor's note: This is the 2005 version of the gift card survey. See the latest version here.

For its annual gift card survey, Bankrate.com polled the top 20 retailers in the nation, and the top four credit card brands -- Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover.

Top 20 retailers
Retailers are presented in order of size (largest to smallest)

Since several of the retailers represent more than one store chain, such as Federated Department Stores, which includes both Bloomingdale's and Macy's, a total of 34 gift cards were reviewed.

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The offerings from the retail stores were generally more consumer-friendly than those of the credit card issuers. Only three retail stores (Albertson's, Macy's and Bloomingdale's) still place expiration dates on their gift cards. Those expiration dates range from two to five years. All four cards backed by the major credit card issuers -- American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover -- have expiration dates.

Some states have laws that prohibit expiration dates on gift cards. If your state does allow gift card expiration dates, the balance left on the card will go to state charities or the balance will begin to dwindle by a percentage set by the issuing store.

Some retailers are trying to persuade consumers not to sit on their gift cards for long periods of time. But just two retailers in our survey (Walgreens and any of the Delhaize chain) charge fees if the card is not used or activated within a year or two after initial purchase. The fees are $2 or $2.10 a month.

Consumers also should be aware that gift cards are not the same as cash! With most retailers and credit card issuers, the money that goes unused on their cards stays on their cards. Be aware that if you only spend $46 dollars on a $50 dollar gift card, you won't be getting $4 back. The unused balance remains on the card and is not refundable.

Only two out of the 25 retailers (Costco and Albertson's) surveyed allow cash back, but it's up to individual store policies and at their discretion. If you want complete satisfaction, experts say spend the total amount on the gift card.

The following charts should tell you everything you need to know about purchasing the right gift card. The first chart covers the top 20 retailers in the nation. The second chart displays the policies of the top four credit card brands.

 

 
 
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