Gift cards - the world's worst present?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 4:58am


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Chances are you received a few gift cards this Christmas. Or perhaps you are guilty of gifting a few yourself. Sure, your teenage niece may be impossible to buy presents for, or you ended up attending your boss's Christmas dinner at the last minute and couldn't show up empty-handed. We understand.

But convenience is no excuse. Gift cards rank at the very bottom of presents you can hand to someone. Forget about the fact they are impersonal. They are simply bad value for money.

For example, most gift cards carry expiry dates, which is why companies love issuing them in the first place. Studies show that anywhere between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of all gift cards and vouchers go unredeemed. That's a straight giveaway to the stores that offer them.

Even when the gift recipient remembers to use the card, most companies won't allow for a cash refund. The person either has to spend more than the card's balance and make up the rest with their own money, or throw away the last few remaining dollars.

The Fortress gift coupon typifies these strict and customer-unfriendly rules. Issued in values of HK$100 or HK$500, each voucher is valid only for a single purchase and expires two years after the date of issue. Fortress does not give change, and the paper voucher has to be in good condition. The company will not accept lost, defaced, or damaged gift coupons.

Steven Siu, a customer service representative for Fortress, says he doesn't know why the retailer puts an expiration date on gift cards. He adds: "We are not forcing customers to purchase the coupon."

As to why Fortress will not give change on gift certificates, Siu says people buy the gift certificate to give it to someone else. "The purchaser wants that person to use it at Fortress," he says.

Not all stored-value cards and coupons are as inflexible as those issued by Fortress. At Lane Crawford, which has stores in Hong Kong and across the mainland, any number of gift cards can be used in a single transaction. They start at HK$300 or 300 yuan and are valid for a year. Cards bought for use at the online store carry a maximum of HK$78,000 while the sky's the limit for cards purchased in an actual store.

The possibility of losing HK$78,000 or more on one piece of plastic is scary, to say the least. Lane Crawford does offer some assurance if the card should go missing or stolen. A customer service representative says the store will replace the card if a person can produce proof of purchase, such as an invoice.

In practical terms, this means if you are giving someone a Lane Crawford gift card, you should hand over the receipt, too.

The department store's card also carries another catch: Hong Kong-purchased cards can only be used in Hong Kong and cards purchased in their Beijing or Shanghai stores can only be used on the mainland.

It's not all bad news. Some cards adding flexibility, such as the Starbucks card. It functions not so much as a gift card but, as the barista at the local Starbucks says, "like an Octopus card". Cardholders can load up to HK$4,000 and the balance never expires. Each card is also registered to the owner to protect against theft or loss, enabling them to go online to review the transactions. You still won't get a cash refund in transactions, but you have flexibility to slowly run out the credit over multiple purchases. You can also use it in Starbucks overseas.

The Starbucks card is probably the best of a bad concept. So the next time you are contemplating a gift certificate, do this instead.

Hand the intended recipient a new note, crisply folded in a fresh envelope, and say it's a universal voucher redeemable anywhere, with no restrictions.