Episode 128: The Influence of Gift Cards

The holidays are over. The presents are unwrapped. And you have a pile of gift cards that you may never use. You’re not alone. According to CEB TowerGroup, nearly $1 billion in gift cards go unused each year.
— Zack Friedman, Forbes, January 10, 2017
November and December now account for less than 21 percent of annual retail sales at physical stores, down from a peak of over 25 percent, and experts believe it’ll keep dropping. Those extra percentage points would have translated into an extra $70 billion more in buying for last year, says Michael Niemira, principal at The Retail Economist.
— NBC Report by The Associated Press, December 24, 2016
We treat money like it’s unseemly and gauche to exchange, but what’s more perverse: handing someone valuable, but unappreciated plastic or handing them a guaranteed-to-be-useful, one-size-fits-all cash money gift? Year after year, studies show that gift cards are great gifts ... if you’re a retail business (actually, it’s a bit of a problem for them too, because the government often takes a portion of unused sums under laws regulating unclaimed property). But in general gift cards usually guarantee that the user will overspend.
— Debra D. Bass, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 14, 2017

Though we might have the tendency to overlook them as mundane or commonplace, gift cards play an interesting role in our gift-giving practices. Increasingly, they are more popular than tangible gifts and present a comfortable middle ground between the effort of finding a gift and the impersonal association we have with giving cash. We are grateful to have Leland Holcomb return this week to discuss these and other ideas about gift cards. And though their convenience is undeniable, how does it affect our gift-giving culture and by extension, our relationships? Does convenience stifle our otherwise creative and arduous journeys to find perfect gifts? Do we distance ourselves further from in-person shopping experiences? What might gift cards suggest about our knowledge of the recipient?