Sometimes it's hard to know what to get someone as a holiday gift, and that's one reason gift cards are so popular. A survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation found that 81 percent of holiday shoppers plan to buy at least one gift card. On average, shoppers will spend $163 for such cards for a total of just under $30 billion. That's 4 percent higher than last year and the highest in the survey's 11-year history.
Interestingly, a significantly smaller percentage of people -- 59 percent -- said they'd like to receive a gift card.
For some types of gift cards, count me among the 40 percent or so who say humbug. The reason is that I sometimes fail to use cards that people have sent me. An unused gift card is a boon to the company you bought it from (and I think they count on a certain percentage of people not cashing them in), but of no use to the person who got it. Also, cards can expire and there are sometimes inactivity fees that can be charged against a card that isn't used.
The good news is that the Federal Trade Commission put some new rules into effect in 2010 that prohibit a card from expiring within five years of its purchase and require issuers to wait a year before assessing inactivity fees. The rules also require that the expiration date and any fees be printed on the card, but that doesn't prevent people like me from throwing the card in a drawer and forgetting about it for a year or two.
The types of gift cards I like are deposits into accounts that aren't tied to a physical card. If someone gives you an Amazon gift card, for example, the card comes with a code that you enter into your Amazon account so the money is there for you to use at any time. It doesn't expire and you no longer need the card.
If there is a physical card, I want it to be registered so that if the card is lost or stolen, I can still use the money.
For example, Starbucks lets you register your card so that if you lose it you can get a new one and transfer the entire balance. You can also get your caffeine fix by using the company's smartphone app, which means you don't even have to carry a card in your wallet. I know it seems like no big deal, but I try to keep the number of cards in my wallet to a minimum so that it doesn't get too bulky and to reduce the hassle of canceling and replacing cards if my wallet is lost or stolen.
Just be sure to register any gift cards as soon as you get them so you don't forget.
You can buy gift cards online and -- in some cases -- have physical cards sent to the recipient or just have the card issuer send the person an email telling them how to redeem the credit online.
Apple (AAPL) lets you buy gift cards for the Apple store or the iTunes store, depending on whether you want the person to be able to use the card for a physical product at the retail store or a virtual one -- like music, video, a book or an app -- via iTunes. Either way you can have a physical card sent through the mail or have the card delivered by email.
Christmas is still a few weeks away, but we're already in the middle of Hanukkah so if you're thinking about a last Hanukkah present (or wind up procrastinating on your Christmas gifts until on or just before Dec. 25), an electronic gift card may be the only way to redeem yourself in time. But if that's the case, what do you put next to the menorah or under the tree?
The solution is simple -- make your own card that tells the person to expect a virtual one. I like to download some appropriate graphics (sometimes including the logo from the online store where I purchased the gift card) and make my own card that I can print out and give to the person. One year I even gift-wrapped a card. I'm not sure it was quite as exciting as unwrapping a physical gift, but it kept the suspension alive for awhile, gave them something to unwrap and -- assuming they redeemed the card -- ultimately gave them something of real value.
One of my favorite holiday gifts, especially for preteens and teens, is an investment at Kiva or MicroPlace.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.