Gift cards remain a popular present for the holidays, although this year -- given the economic situation -- sales are projected to be lower. According to an Archstone Consulting survey, Americans will spend $25 billion on gift cards, down 25 percent from 2007. Nevertheless, 55 percent of consumers told the National Retail Federation that they want to receive gift cards this holiday season -- more than any other type of gift.
And where will they be buying these cards? At discount stores like Costco and Wal-Mart and in restaurants, reflecting the country's cautious attitude toward discretionary spending. Many consumers are also looking for additional coupons or discounts that may come with gift cards. (Read about the trends in the gift card world in the Bankrate feature, "Gift cards for needs, not wants.")
Consequently, this year, Bankrate surveyed department stores in the middle range -- out went Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom -- and added online retailers eBay.com and Amazon.com. Other newcomers to the 2008 Gift card study are Bed, Bath & Beyond; CVS; Dillard's; and Walgreens.
The features of gift cards have changed little since last year. The key answers about gift cards that consumers can find in Bankrate's survey are:
As we found last year, expiration dates on gift cards issued by retailers are gone. A study of the gift card market done by The Hartman Group and National Research Network showed that 53 percent of gift card givers and receivers were leery of cards because of expiration dates. So, most retailers have removed that negative from the product.
However, if you are giving a major credit card-branded gift card -- from American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa -- you'll need to pay attention to the limits: American Express cards don't expire, but there is a $2 monthly service fee after 12 months; Visa cards expire after one year; MasterCard gift cards expire after 24 months; and Discover cards charge a $2.50 monthly maintenance fee if the card has not had any activity in more than 12 months and totally expires after 24 months, whether it has been used or not.