Fee to buy
For the convenience of using a gift card anywhere, consumers will have to pay. AmEx and Discover gift cards cost $3.95 per card and MasterCard and Visa gift cards will cost you around $4.95. (The fee varies depending on the bank that issues the card. Bankrate surveyed MasterCard gift cards from HSBC and Washington Mutual, and Visa gift cards from SunTrust.)
Despite these fees and restrictions, though, these prepaid bank cards continue to be desirable for recipients. In a survey conducted by First Data Corp., 28 percent of respondents say they would rather receive a gift card they could use anywhere. Still, the majority of cards sold are for a single retailer.
Where it can be used
The majority of retailers allow consumers to redeem the gift cards in the store and online, a change from years past. In our survey, only CVS, Walgreens, Home Depot, Marshalls and TJ Maxx don't allow cards to be spent online.
Earlier this year, when the Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy protection, gift cardholders were left with worthless plastic. With many businesses struggling in this financial environment, gift-card givers should think about the health of the store they're purchasing cards from and receivers should spend their gift cards quickly.
Electronic gift cards
One common reason consumers cite for not wanting to give gift cards is that they are "impersonal." So, an electronic gift card, or e-card, must be perceived as the most impersonal. Again, to remove negatives from the product, many retailers and bank card issuers have stopped offering them. Of the 25 gift card issuers we surveyed, only 13 offer e-cards. Both Amazon.com and eBay.com offer e-cards, but they also offer plastic cards. EBay cards can be purchased at numerous nationwide merchants, including A&P, Kroger, Albertson's, Meijer and Piggly Wiggly.
Whether you're buying a plastic card or an e-card, though, you can buy it online from every retailer and bank card we surveyed. This year Bankrate has links that will take the consumer directly to a retailer for purchase. Just click on the link for Find a card.
The 2008 Gift card study was conducted by researcher Heather Kuhn during the week of Oct. 24. Read the details of all the cards on the "Gift Card Results" page.