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."
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:
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.
$25-$3,000, $25-$5,000 for personalized cards
American Express still charges a $3.95 purchase fee ($4.95 to $6.95 for special-occasion cards) for the privilege of buying its gift cards, but a lack of fees thereafter and a long list of spending options make it worth the cover charge.
American Express dropped the expiration dates and monthly fees on its gift cards ahead of the CARD Act last year, which only made its plastic presents more desirable. It's basically like handing someone an envelope of cash that can be used anywhere in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands at any place that takes American Express (except cruise lines, casinos and ATMs), but without questions about its origins.
$25-$3,000, $25-$5,000 for personalized cards
The perfect card for the lazy and unmotivated, the Amazon gift card can be e-mailed to mole-eyed recipients who can use it without getting off the couch.
While Amazon purchases once required customers who bought items from Amazon or its third-party partners to get up and answer the door when a package came, Amazon's growing selection of music downloads, Amazon on Demand movies and television series and Kindle book files reduce the need to ever enter the sunlight again.
Happy holidays, pasty.
If the Gap treated its logo with the same reverence and consistency it reserves for its gift cards, its last few weeks would have been much quieter. While it's lovely that the Gap gift card can be shipped free to recipients who can use it at stores or online, its best benefit is that it can be used at the Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta and Piperlime.com. While that expands consumers' shopping options, it also gives shoppers buying holiday gifts for teens confidence that the card won't just get cast aside because they've outgrown a particular brand.
Gap's dogged pursuit of various demographics may seem desperate at times, but it's dead-on when finding gifts for fickle friends or family.
Anyone who's ever had a pipe burst in their apartment or a storm take out some shingles on their house knows the value of a home and hardware-store gift card.
Home Depot's gift card has one very important feature that its competitors don't: the ability to send it as an e-card and customize it with various background images or your own image. Trivial as that may seem, it's a subtle way of letting a picture of a friend's floor say it's time to replace the linoleum or to tell a loved one to fix that glitch garage door opener before it crushes the life out of someone. A feature that notifies buyers when their gift cards were viewed is also handy.
--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.