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Yule tradition is in the cards

December 17, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

The concept of the gift card isn't new to Frank Emery, who discovered the plastic variant of the traditional gift certificate while Christmas shopping at Lowe's last year.

The Waynesboro, Pa., resident figured a gift card, which works like a debit card with a line of merchandise credit, would come in handy for the big do-it-yourselfer on his gift list.

It was such a hit, Emery went back to Lowe's this year and bought another one for the same person.

He also bought one from JC Penney, which he noticed had started offering gift cards this year.

"I think it's nice for older people so they can get what they want," said Emery, 43, who considers gift cards the same as gift certificates.

While they serve essentially the same purpose as traditional gift certificates, gift cards are more convenient to buy and use and are easier to handle and hold onto than their paper counterparts, local retailers say.

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They're also more beneficial from a business standpoint because, unlike with most gift certificates, any balance leftover from a purchase generally carries over as credit on the card instead of being refunded in cash.

Hotter than ever




While not a new product, gift cards are hotter than ever this holiday season, with more major department stores and other retailers jumping on the bandwagon, according to Scott Krugman, spokesman for the National Retail Foundation in Washington.

Tri-State area retailers offering gift cards for their first holiday season include all JC Penney stores, Hecht's, Zales Jewelers and Hoss's Family Steak & Seahouse in Martinsburg, W.Va.,

The way gift cards work varies from store to store. Some sell them in set denominations or increments only, while others sell them in any amount. Most set a minimum purchase, but some don't.

Most sell them at all registers in the store instead of requiring shoppers to go to the customer service department, as is often the case with gift certificates.

Some allow you to keep recharging a card's value, like you can with a prepaid phone card.

Like gift certificates, store gift cards are generally sold at face value, though there can be a shipping fee for online orders.

The generic SwiftGiftCard, which can be used at any merchant that accepts MasterCard, charges a significant service charge.

The vast majority of gift cards, including the SwiftGiftCard, do not allow you to get change from a purchase but rather carry over the credit on the card.

The popularity of gift cards reflects a growing comfort with using plastic in our day-to-day lives - from prepaid calling calls to check cards to grocery store coupon cards to health club ID cards, Krugman said.

"Anything you can scan or swipe, consumers are becoming very comfortable with," he said.

Better than paper




Gift cards have much more going for them than paper gift certificates, which are more time-consuming to process and more likely to get lost or damaged, Krugman said.

Gift cards are easier to keep track of because they can be carried like a credit card in a wallet or purse, he said.

"It's like building the better mousetrap. In this case, it's like building the better gift certificate," Krugman said.

Another plus of gift cards is that you don't have to use the entire amount at one time, but can keep making smaller purchases until you get to your limit, he said.

It's too soon to tell if gift cards will replace gift certificates entirely, Krugman said. It may not pay for mom-and-pop operations to invest in the needed equipment, he said.

Bigger stores have embraced the gift card concept, some using them to replace paper gift certificates, others offering them as another option.

Sears and Big Kmart stopped issuing paper gift certificates when they introduced gift cards last year.

Wal-Mart started selling gift cards several years ago but has continued to offer traditional gift certificates as well, said Jeff Shreck, manager of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"Some people still like the paper for gifts," Shreck said, though the gift cards are becoming more acceptable.

Hoss's Family Steak & Seahouse, which debuted its gift cards a few weeks before Thanksgiving, still issues paper gift certificates, if requested, said manager Scott Jackson.

However, Jackson said he hasn't had a customer ask for a gift certificate when offered a gift card instead.

"A lot of people think they're neat," said Jackson, who thinks the best thing about gift cards is that they prevent people from using a gift certificate to buy something small then getting the rest back in cash.

"It keeps them coming back in," he said.

Not universal




Not all department stores have jumped on the gift card bandwagon.

While The Bon-Ton may eventually look at offering them, the York, Pa.-based department store chain is sticking with traditional gift certificates for now, said Jan Ladnier, senior vice president of public relations.

And they seem to be a little more popular than they were in the past, Ladnier said.

She attributes that in part to a shift in how people view gift certificates.

Gaining acceptance




At one point considered rather impersonal, gift certificates have become much more acceptable as a gift that gives the recipient freedom to choose.

The chain has made buying gift certificates more convenient this holiday season. Shoppers can order Bon-Ton gift certificates online through giftpoint.com.

While Carolyn Beck wasn't planning to buy any gift cards as Christmas gifts this year, she said she likes the product better than traditional gift certificates.

"I think they're nice because you can add to them," said Beck, 42, of Hagerstown, who bought her first gift card from Wal-Mart as a housewarming gift this summer.

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