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5 Best Gift Cards for Early Holiday Shopping

Stocks in this article: COSTAXPAMZNGPSHD

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- Relatives you barely know and coworkers you can scarcely stand will be expecting gifts this holiday season. It's as good a time to stock up on gift cards as any.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $23.6 billion on gift cards during the 2009 holiday season. That averages out to $139.91 spent per shopper on 3.5 gift cards worth $39.80 each. That's also down from $147.33 per person in 2008 as shoppers opted for more practical presents, purchased more marked-down products like electronics or apparel or, like 21% of shoppers surveyed by the NRF, found gift cards cold and impersonal.

"Gift cards were immensely popular because people were adding them to a bottle of wine or a gift basket," says Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the NRF. "In recent years, people were cutting out the gift card altogether and looking for more personal ways to say that they care about someone."

This doesn't mean demand for gift cards has waned. Thanks to the CARD Act that went into effect this year, gift-card issuers can't charge a fee on those cards for 12 months and can't allow a card to expire until five years after purchase -- making them a much more desirable commodity. Also, 27% of shoppers gave gift cards last year so their recipients could pick their own presents. Despite a downturn in sales, the NRF says gift cards were still the most requested gift item last holiday season, with 55% of adults clamoring for one. People ask for them, but don't receive.

"The funny thing is that gift cards remain one of the most-requested gift items," Grannis says. "When we poll people about what they'd like to receive during the holiday season, gift cards usually rank either first or second."

TheStreet looked at the field of gift cards and came away with five worth considering this holiday season. If there's someone special in your life, or just someone you don't know how to shop for, the cards are broad enough to fit the bill: Costco (COST)

Denominations: $25-$1,000

On its surface, a gift card for a warehouse store seems about as exciting as a gift certificate to the supermarket. Costco's Cash Card, however, lets users spend on marked-down pallets of bulk paper products in the warehouse, electronics and appliances online and unleaded at its gas stations. Perhaps the Cash Card's best feature is that you don't have to be a Costco member to redeem it, which is a brilliant marketing strategy for Costco but a better way for non-members to benefit from bargains without forking over a $50 to $100 membership fee.

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