Are Gift Cards the New Bottled Water?


photo by Arvindgrover via flickr

You can buy disposable, plastic gift cards at the corner store. Most supermarkets devote an entire end cap to the solicitation of gift cards. The logos and products of various chain stores grace the front of these cards: Starbucks, McDonalds, Target, iTunes, Chili's, Pizza Hut, etc. You can buy gift cards in dozens of denominations to almost any corporate store.

Now there is a new gift card on the market. It's made by the credit card companies. A citizen may buy a sixty dollar Visa/MasterCard/Discover/ETC Gift Card and give it to their cousin as a birthday gift. The cousin now has sixty dollars that he can spend like cash. But it's not cash. It's a disposable gift card that works like cash but is somehow different than cash. What? This is too stupid to catch on. Oh,really? They've already bottled up the water and sold it to us at a premium, proving nothing is too stupid to catch on. They'll probably start bagging up the air and selling that. And we might buy it. Gift Cards and the Environment
Gift-card supporters claim that gift cards are eco-friendly because they have a small carbon footprint in comparison with a larger gift that may go unwanted or unused. A gift card is also lighter to ship across the country. In some situations, the gift card may be the more eco-friendly gift. Then again, cash is light and never goes unwanted. Cash is reusable. It's versatile, and cash doesn't expire, unless the country expires. In which case, I'd venture to guess that Subway would probably stop honoring its gift cards.

It would take careful judgment to correctly consider which situations warrant gift-card giving. And if you are using careful judgment, you can probably use it to find a good gift.

Some of the gift cards out there are just wasteful. Consider the iTunes gift card. You will find iTunes cards any place that gift cards are sold. The gift cards start their lives being manufactured and designed, then they are shipped to a distribution center. The cards are then sent to various stores. Customers drive to these stores and buy the card. "Would you like a bag for that?" The customer takes the gift card home, wraps it and gives it to a friend. The friend opens it and goes online to purchase digital music. That's a lot of extraneous steps for something that can be purchased online. You can buy electronic gift cards to iTunes and email it to your friend. You don't need even to buy the plastic version.

And what of these gift cards to places like McDonalds and Pizza Hut? How are these cards less tacky than giving cash? Whenever I get one of these gift cards, I feel outright insulted.

Gift Cards and Culture
Why is socially acceptable to give gift cards and not cash? Gift cards have a crack marketing team behind them and show pictures of delicious foods and wonderful prizes. Cash is backed by the always-popular US government and has some scowling dead politicians on them.

Philosophy professor Steven Gimbel has this to say about gift cards.

From Consumer Affairs

A bad gift is still a bad gift, but sometimes the bad gifts are the best ones to get. Sometimes it is the thought of a bad gift that counts," Gimbel said.

"The gift card is about the giver, not about the recipient. It sends the message that happiness is to be found in acquiring the things you want, not in being close to people who care about you -- even if the people close to you do not really know you," Gimbel said.

"When you give a gift that plays to someone's personality, the gift says, 'I don't quite get it, but I know it's important to you and I want you to know I am happy to try to nurture that aspect of your life.


Gift Cards and the Economy
Not only are gift cards thoughtless, they may be worthless.

From MSN Money

The number of abandoned gift card recipients is sure to grow as a troubled economy sinks more retailers and restaurant chains. TowerGroup, a research firm, has estimated consumers could lose more than $75 million this holiday season to company bankruptcies that wipe out gift card values.

Last year, consumers lost 8 billion dollars in unspent gift cards. Most gift cards have an expiration date. Some have hidden fees attached to them.

From Consumer Reports:

A national survey of 1,500 consumers done last spring by WSL Strategic Retail, based in New York, found gift-card fees and expiration dates were among the top causes of frustration.

Earlier this year, TowerGroup, a research firm in Needham, Mass., estimated the value of unused gift cards in the U.S. at $8 billion for 2006. And in its fiscal 2006 annual report, the retailer Best Buy revealed a $43 million gain from gift cards that were unlikely to be used.

A great deal of gift cards are wasted. They are costly trash with a nothing useful attached to them. At least bottled water has water in it.

The Credit Cash Cards
To me, nothing is dumber than these credit cards that can be purchased with a preset cash amount and spent like cash. They are a waste of materials. We could quibble about the usefulness of a Home Depot gift card, but I don't see any merit in a card that works the same as cash. Why not add a faceless corporate middleman to all of your gifts?

Somehow, we've come to accept that drinking bottled water is a good idea, despite the fact that tap water is safe and has more regulations and safeguards than bottled water. Tap water is also better for the planet. Now our culture has accepted that gift cards—no matter how thoughtless, wasteful, stupid or frivolous—are an acceptable gift. Visa even suggests giving out these cash cards for Valentine's Day. How romantic!

Tags: Advertising | Carbon Footprint | Consumerism

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