Holiday 2012 has been an interesting selling season. Consumers are cautiously optimistic, planning to spend slightly above what they did in 2011, though the economy / unemployment are still troublesome and the fiscal cliff could still turn out to be the Grinch who stole Christmas. Undoubtedly, though, the shining star of the season has been the resurgence of gift cards.
While gift cards have been perennially touted as the perfect last-minute gift, a look at this year’s insights shows us that gift card buying patterns are shifting. For 2012, consumers aren’t waiting until Christmas Eve for these purchases; they are checking them off their lists much sooner. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly one-third (32.6%) of Black Friday Weekend* shoppers made a gift card purchase, up a whopping 40% from a year ago (23.1%). Further, as of the first week of December, holiday shoppers overall continue to pace ahead of previous years’ buying habits; two out of five (39.2%) have already purchased these stored-cash cards as gifts this season, up 25% from 2011 (31.4%).
So is 2012 shaping up to be the Year of the Gift Card? You betcha. So let’s take a look at three reasons why gift cards are a “must buy” among holiday shoppers this year.
1. We want gift cards – badly.
While they have been atop consumers’ wish lists since 2007, intent to buy gift cards sputtered during the recession as consumers reached for bargain merchandise that wouldn’t quite reveal the total dollar amount paid. This year, though, a record number of consumers are requesting them (59.8%, much higher than the second most request gift – apparel and accessories – at 49.1%), and a record number of shoppers are responding that they are planning to buy them (59.2%, nearly eclipsing the most purchased category – again apparel and accessories – at 59.7%).
Bonus: Buying a gift card spares the giver and receiver from that awkward “here’s the receipt for the return” exchange.
2. Gift cards are still practical gifts.
Gift cards may be tempting this year because they can still be perfectly practical, which is on what the near majority of consumers are remaining focused in this uncertain economy. Recipients can buy what they want or what they need – and either way, it’s money well spent on behalf of the giver and better than a sweater relegated to the back of someone’s closet, no? Shoppers may have a little extra cash in their pockets this year, but if they are going to spend their hard-earned (and hard-saved) pennies, they’ll do it wisely. And remember, a $50 gift card to a discounter might be one man’s (or woman’s) groceries at Target but another’s new home décor from Tar-Zhay.
Bonus: And speaking of sweaters, gift cards are one-size-fits-all, so no worrying about whether or not Aunt Clara really did lose that 10 lbs. this year when debating between a medium and a large [oy].
3. We can buy gift cards “on sale.”
Back in the day (so…five years ago), buying a $50 gift card meant that the purchaser would fork over $50 cash. And these days, with retailers and restaurateurs bending over backward to bring customers through their doors, it seems that incentives to buy gift cards are becoming increasingly creative as well as prevalent. Nowadays, a $100 gift card might come with a $20 bonus to use later (Merry Christmas to me, right?) Or, and this is one of the examples I saw a few times during my Black Friday exploits, a pack of five $20 gift cards might be discounted 20% to $80. Gift card purchasers may also be receiving more indirect incentives to purchase, such as grocery stores offering frequent shopper / fuel rewards or salons giving away coupon books for future services with gift cards purchases.
Bonus: Shop wisely and gift cards purchases can still come with that “you’ll-never-guess-what-I-paid-for-it” cachet, which was the feel good saying among holiday shoppers during the recession.
So are gift cards changing the way we approach shopping for holiday gifts? Certainly. However, when and if gift exchanges turn into gift card exchanges, I’ll bet we’ll see a renaissance of more traditional gift giving.
* “Black Friday Weekend” is defined as Thursday (Thanksgiving), Friday (Black Friday), Saturday, and Sunday.