2011 Gift Card Survey
credit cards
Gift cards go virtual and mobile

"Consumers are buying these gift cards in every available channel they can," says Rea. "So it behooves retailers to have multiple purchasing avenues."

Starbucks launched its mobile card payment effort in September 2009 for iPhone and iPad users, and the company added BlackBerry smartphones a year later. At the beginning of this year, the company made the mobile payment option available in all of its 6,800 company-operated stores nationwide.

At the time, Brady Brewer, Starbucks' vice president of card and brand loyalty, said in a statement that the mobile payment program delivers convenience, rewards loyalty and continues "to build an emotional connection with our customers."

Amazon unveiled its Facebook gift card in November 2010, after the results of Bankrate's 2010 Gift Card Study were published. The consumer can create a gift card from various designs and then have the card posted on the recipient's Facebook wall. The sender can schedule when the gift card will appear up to a year in advance.

Fees, expiration dates and other features

Overall, most retailer gift cards in Bankrate's survey, including gas gift cards and airline cards, have no dormancy or maintenance fees and no expiration dates. The exceptions are Pilot Travel Centers and H-E-B grocery stores. Pilot Travel Centers may charge a $1.20 fee if the gift card has been inactive for two years. H-E-B will deduct $2 per month from the card balance if it hasn't been used in a year, which is a change from the 2010 study.

Seven of the eight network-branded cards feature some kind of fee; either a dormancy, maintenance or purchase fee. Only Fifth Third Bank MasterCard gift cards are fee-free. Five of the open-loop cards had expiration dates, but the funds on a Wells Fargo card never expire. American Express and Discover gift cards both featured "valid-through" dates. Customers can request a replacement card after the original card's "valid-through" date passes.

None of the closed-loop cards and just two of the open-loop cards require a personal identification number, or PIN, to conduct a transaction, which makes them easier for thieves to use. A third of the companies won't replace the card or funds if the gift card is lost or stolen while a few charge a fee or impose other limitations.

Gift cards have ranked as the No. 1 requested gift item for four straight years, according to the National Retail Federation. So, to make sure your gift card brings joy -- and not stress -- this holiday season, choose a card that reflects your recipient's shopping needs and habits, not just one that's convenient for you.

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