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5 Great Holiday Gift Cards Stocking Stuffers

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- When holiday shoppers care enough to give but not enough to put lots of thought into it, the trusty gift card always manages to save the season.

As long as it's not the wrong gift card.

According to the National Retail Federation's Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions survey conducted by BIGresearch, holiday shoppers are expected to spend $27.8 billion on gift cards this year alone. That's an average of $155.43 per shopper, the highest amount since 2007 and up from $145.61 last year.

Roughly 80% of all holiday shoppers will buy gift cards this year, compared with 77.3% in 2010, and they'll be spending more with each purchase. The average amount going on gift cards this holiday season is $43.23, a slight increase from $41.48 last year.

Ask those same shoppers why they're going with the plastic or e-card gift rather than specific goods and 46.4% will say they will buy gift cards because it allows the recipient to choose exactly what he or she wants. That's a bit more thoughtful than the nearly 20% who say they will choose the cards because they are more convenient.

Holiday shoppers who aren't into handing a friend, co-worker or loved one a repackaged pile of cash make pretty decent points as well. About 9% say they'd rather buy an item on sale than a gift card with a fixed price, while 17.4% say they're leery of suddenly subjecting their gift to fees and expiration dates that wouldn't exist if they just handed the recipient a bunch of bills in a card. The biggest argument against gift cards, however, is that 26.1% of those who shun them think they seem impersonal no matter what card they're wrapped in or what trinkets they're bundled with.

That leaves out one larger point, however: Gift cards are only as good as the companies issuing them. Gift card monitoring site ScripSmart assigns zero-to-100 scores to gift cards from retailers throughout the U.S. and has no qualms about calling out companies on shaky ground. Anyone holding a Filene's Basement gift card, for example, should unload it like nuclear waste after that discount chain declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy, liquidated and earned its card a goose egg rating for belonging to a soon-to-be defunct organization.

Health and beauty supply chain Rite-Aid's gift card scored the second-worst rating -- a lowly 15 -- by coupling its shaky financial footing with a card that can't be bought directly from Rite-Aid (RAD), can't be redeemed online, can't be reloaded, can't be refunded and can't escape a 10-year expiration date that Rite-Aid doesn't even allude to on its Web site. Fortunately, there are far more stable and shopping-friendly choices out there.

Disney's (DIS) gift card, for example, has no fees or expiration dates and can be redeemed through any of Disney's numerous brands. Chili's restaurant gift cards, meanwhile, don't expire or carry a fee and can also be used at Brinker International's (EAT) Maggiano's Little Italy. Interbrand use is also key to the Williams-Sonoma (WSM) e-gift card, which can also be redeemed at Pottery Barn or West Elm.

With help from ScripSmart, we came up with the best five gift cards to stuff a stocking with this holiday season:

Stock quotes in this article: WFM, AXP, V, GPS 

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