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TheStreet Open House

Starbucks, Blackhawk Networks Benefit in $118B Gift Card Boom

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I hope everyone had a good holiday season. Like many Americans this year I received, and gave, a few gift cards. According to the National Retail Federation, eight in 10 shoppers purchased a gift card this holiday season. Sales of gift cards are expected to surpass $118 billion this year, an 8% increase over 2012 sales according to Corporate Executive Board.

With $118 billion in sales this year it looks like much of the retail space stands to benefit. Moreover, CEB isn't expecting growth to slow anytime soon. Open network branded card sales including those from American Express, Visa and Mastercard grew from $41 billion to $44 billion this year. Retailers also saw strong growth with gift card sales increasing by 10%. CEB is predicting sales to rise to more than $140 billion with the help of the e-gifting trend.

So who stands to benefit?

Well the retailers of course. One company in particular stands in an interesting position. Blackhawk Network Holdings (HAWK), a subsidiary of Safeway  (SWY), offers investors great exposure to the gift card industry. The company's Gift Card Mall, which you may have seen in your local  grocery stores, pharmacies or convenience stores, offers an array of gift card offerings.

In addition to brick and mortar exposure, Blackhawk has built up online partnerships through a growing network including Amazon.com, ebay.com and drugstore.com.

So if you recently bought a gift card on Amazon or eBay, Blackhawk was responsible for the transaction. Over the last year, management has actively focused on expanding its e-gifting exposure through partnership agreements and social media adoption. According to CEB, e-gifting is key to industry's growth. Last year $300 million in e-gift cards were sold and now it is expected $3 billion were sold this year.

Maybe the most commonly given gift card, the Starbucks card, should have also done well this year. Earlier in the month Starbucks (SBUX) announced that one in every 10 American adults received a Starbucks card last holiday season. Moreover, Adam Brotman, the company's chief digital officer, hinted that the company is on track for another record performance in Starbucks card sales this year.

For whatever reason, consumers and gift givers can't seem to get enough of the black stuff. Maybe it's the seasonal focus the company offers. Maybe it's because the product depth allows nearly everyone to find something they like. Maybe its just tradition at this point.

The company recently reported that the Starbucks card, which launched 12 years ago, has been loaded with an astounding $16 billion across more than 450 million cards in 27 countries worldwide. Of that $16 billion, $4 billion was loaded onto Starbucks cards worldwide in the past year. Doing some simple math we see Starbucks card sales made up roughly 3.4% of total card sales this year.

Gift cards definitely help the retailers, aiding in cash flow and helping to lower transaction costs for many merchants. Small value purchase transactions, such as those that occur at Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's eat into the profit margins. With consumers purchasing more on gift cards, the transaction fees per consumer will likely go down as a result of only a one-time transaction fee, the initial purchase of the card.

As long as we have the holidays we are going to have gift cards. Helped by the emergence of e-gift giving, advisory firms that cover the space are predicting continued growth and strength in the year ahead. Among those to benefit, Blackhawk Network and Starbucks look like clear stand outs. Blackhawk's diverse portfolio of distribution points at both brick and mortar, and online locations, should allow it to capture this growth. 

At the time of publication the author was long SBUX.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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