It’s happened to the best of us. You’re about to leave the office for your holiday vacation when, all of a sudden, a co-worker unexpectedly hands you a gift. Or a 3rd cousin whose name you only sort of know plops a present in your lap right after Grandma’s big Christmas dinner.
While these situations are undoubtedly awkward, they’re not exactly the end of the world.
“Generally across the board, it’s not a requirement … to give them something” if someone unexpectedly presents you with a gift, says Regina Conway, a consumer expert with Slickdeals.net.
Still, if you are interested in reciprocating the gesture, all you have to do is whip out your smartphone. Many retailers now offer mobile gift cards, a subset of electronic gift cards that can be purchased and redeemed right on your phone.
These products, which are easy to purchase, redeem and personalize, are “a good alternative” to the old-fashioned gift closet, Conway says. (You know, that place where you store extra soap or candles, unwanted gifts for regifting and those lackluster items you won at a local charity auction.)
In preparation for the forthcoming holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some retailers who can digitally bail you out of a sticky situation brought on by a surprise gift-er. But first, here are a few rules of mobile gift card-giving.
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Mobile-Gifting Etiquette 101
When it comes to mobile gift card-giving, you have to “really think about the recipient,” says Shelley Hunter, spokeswoman for GiftCards.com and creator of the Gift Card Girlfriend brand. “The gift card should be as easy for me to use as it is for you to buy.”
Mobile or e-gift cards, by nature, require senders to provide an email address or a phone number for the recipient, so if you want things to go as seamlessly as possible, you should verify that your recipient has a smartphone.
Of course, if they don’t, or if you are hesitant to fork over this piece of personal information, there are workarounds.
“If you’re doing the e-gift, you can use the option to send them to yourself,” says Shannon Hanrahan, consumer savings expert from PromoCodes.com, and then print them out or forward them to the intended recipient. Many e-cards can be printed out via computer or used online.
Keep in mind, “most (retailers) aren’t going to be using the emails to send spam or anything,” Hanrahan says. “There’s an option for you to click that you don’t want to get their emails.”
Beyond the delivery, you should also think about what brand of gift card your surprise gift-er (or, at the very least, his or her demographic) might enjoy most. Fortunately, we have a list of quality mobile gift cards by category for you to consider.
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For the coffee fanatic
If your surprise gift-er is a java lover, you’re in luck: 2 major coffee chains offer standout mobile gifting platforms.
Starbucks, essentially a pioneer in this space, sells e-cards that are sent by email and can be loaded into and redeemed through the merchant’s mobile app at the point of sale. The app pairs with Starbucks’ loyalty program, which means the e-card’s recipient can earn rewards on purchases.
Plus, the chain allows you “to personalize the face of your gift card,” says Carrie Brenner, business and marketing manager for GiftCardRescue.com.
Meanwhile, Dunkin’ Donuts has a mobile app that links to the chain’s loyalty program and can be used to send personalized e-cards by text, email or Facebook. A recipient can load these virtual cards into the app and redeem them via Dunkin’ Donuts’ mobile payments platform.
Just “do a quick search of the stores in their area to make sure they accept the mobile payment,” Conway says.
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For the fashionista
Is your friend, family member or co-worker a clotheshorse? Gap Inc. Brands offers a virtual card through e-gifting solution firm CashStar that can be sent to a recipient’s phone by email or text message. These e-cards can be redeemed via bar code at any Gap brand, including Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic.
“It’s great when customers can use a card at a variety of stores,” Hunter says. You can also add a personalized message or upload a photo to these e-cards.
Makeup and beauty chain Sephora, which also uses CashStar, sports a similar e-gift card program. Virtual cards can be purchased online and sent via email or text. They can be used in store or online. The retailer has a $50 version that comes with a complimentary 45-minute customer makeover. You can also manage your gift cards on your iPhone through Wallet, Apple’s virtual wallet app formerly known as Passbook.
“It’s a special treat for someone,” Conway says.
Meanwhile, clothing chain American Eagle sends its mobile gift card to recipients via text and a backup email, “which is great in case you delete” the original, says Hanrahan.
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For the everyman
If you’re truly clueless about what type of card your surprise gift-er would like to receive, consider a multipurpose retailer or big-box chain.
Target, for instance, sells a mobile gift card on its website that’s sent via text message and can be used in store or online. Recipients can click the link within the text to view or redeem the card; they can also save the “card” to their Target Mobile GiftCard account.
Like Starbucks, Target has created its “own personal mobile wallet for their gift cards,” Brenner says. “They give you the ability to send gift cards” directly through their app.
Kohl’s offers an electronic gift card that is sent by email and can be redeemed via smartphone at the checkout line.
Home Depot’s virtual gift card offers a variety of features, including the ability to design your own card or add a video.
In terms of personalization, “Home Depot has been ahead of this game for a long time,” Hunter says. Its e-cards can be purchased on a mobile phone and can be redeemed online or in stores by showing the cashier the email that contains the account information.
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For the food lover … and more
In terms of restaurants, an Applebee’s digital gift card, which can be sent via email, text or Facebook, “just has a tremendous amount of features available,” Hunter says. These features include the ability to add video or photos to your gift. You can also send a personalized message.
IHOP also sells an e-card that you can print out and redeem in store.
Of course, if your friend’s favorite restaurant or retailer doesn’t offer a mobile gift card, there is another option to consider: You can purchase and send mobile gift cards from various merchants through a gift card wallet like Gyft or GoWallet. (Fun fact: Gyft allows people to purchase the cards with bitcoin.)
Another service, OpenTable, allows you to send digital restaurant gift cards via email, and gives the option of picking a participating restaurant, or letting the recipient pick a restaurant nearby that they’d prefer in amounts starting at $20 all the way to $250.