Gift cards remain largely unchanged compared with last year and appeal more to younger people and those who make more money, according to surveys compiled by Bankrate's sister company, CreditCards.com and Princeton Survey Research Associates International (commissioned by Bankrate).
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Brand-specific cards are still the best deals compared with the all-purpose variety issued by banks and credit card companies, because they charge fewer front- and back-end fees and feature no expiration dates.
Of the 55 brand-specific gift cards that include retailers, restaurants, airlines and gas stations, only three charge a purchase fee all the time, and none charge a dormancy or maintenance or expire.
"(There's been) a lot of standardization among the (brand-specific) gift cards," says Ben Jackson, senior analyst at Mercator Advisory Group. "They've dropped expiration dates altogether. It's just gotten a lot simpler."
Compare that with the seven general-purpose cards with an American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa logo on them. All of these cards have purchase fees. Five of them charge dormancy or maintenance fees and three feature expiration dates.
Due to recent laws that limited gift card fees and fees from card transactions, Jackson says, "It is much more difficult to run a (general-purpose) gift card program profitably. These gift cards can only make money on initial fees, and we've seen some issuers get out of the business altogether."
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The card portion of the survey noted that Chase no longer offers its Chase Visa gift card this year, a change from last year's survey. The bank declined to comment on the change. And American Express increased its minimum purchase fee to $3.95 from $2.95 last year.
It looked at 62 gift cards in total: seven bank and credit card company-issued gift cards and 55 other gift cards from chain restaurants, online stores, supermarkets, department stores, big-box stores, major airlines and gas stations.
The survey included cards from single retailers, brands or chains, known as "closed-loop cards." It also looked at "open-loop cards" that feature a credit card payment network, such as Visa or American Express. For a complete listing of surveyed cards, see our chart.
Who wants which gift card?
Gift cards have been the most popular gift choice for the past five years, according to the National Retail Federation. Almost two-thirds of people have given a gift card, and more than three-quarters have received one, according to a separate Bankrate survey (conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates) of 1,001 Americans older than age 18. That was pretty steady across all regions of the U.S. and community types.
"It's a much easier, more popular way to provide a gift to somebody," says Madeline Aufseeser, senior analyst at Aite Group. "If I don't know your particular taste or size, then I am safe with a gift card."
Although gift cards may seem like a no-brainer for that hard-to-buy-for person on your list, you can go wrong. It appears that Granny would prefer a restaurant or store gift card to a general-purpose one, while busy parents would prefer that American Express gift card that can be used almost anywhere. If you're giving a gift card to someone in the upper-income ranges, such as your boss, it seems as if most would stick to a general-purpose gift card, according to the poll.
Findings from the survey
- The most common value of gift cards, both given and received, was $25 to less than $50.
- Just more than half (53%) of the general population preferred general-purpose gift cards.
- One-third favored gift cards from stores or restaurants.
- Whites are more likely (70%) to give gift cards than blacks (53%) or Hispanics (54%).
- Whites are more likely (81%) to receive gift cards than blacks (60%) or Hispanics (74%).
- People older than 65 and those between 18 and 29 years old are the least likely to give a gift card.
- People older than 65 are the least likely to receive a gift card.
- Just more than a third of people older than 65 (37%) prefer a general-purpose gift card, even though more than half of the general population (53%) favored this type of gift card.
- Half of people older than 65 (51%) prefer a gift card to a store or restaurant.
By income and employment
- As income level increases, the more likely those people are to give and/or receive a gift card.
- Two-thirds of people who make more than $75,000 a year prefer a general-purpose gift card.
- Almost three-quarters of full-time workers (73%) have given someone a gift card, compared with just more than half of part-time workers (51%) and 60% of nonemployed people.
- Nonemployed people are the least likely to receive a gift card (70%).
Source: Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted this survey from Oct. 17 to Oct. 20, 2013, using a sample of 1,001 adults living in the continental U.S. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline and cell phone. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is 3.6 percentage points.
No matter who is buying or receiving gift cards this season, sales of gift cards are expected to increase this year and outpace the year-over-year growth in overall holiday sales, says Brian Riley, research director at CEB TowerGroup.
He also noted that this year's holiday shopping season is truncated because Thanksgiving falls a week later. There are only four weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not to mention that this year Hanukkah begins on the same day as Thanksgiving, making for a very short shopping season for some.
"If you have less time to spend in a store for holiday shopping," Riley says, "that's certainly good for buying gift cards."
Methodology: The PSRAI October 2013 Omnibus Week 3 obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults living in the continental United States. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (500) and cell phone (501, including 246 without a landline phone). The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI). Interviews were done in English by Princeton Data Source from October 17 to 20, 2013. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is 3.6 percentage points.
Copyright 2013, Bankrate Inc.