ATLANTA — It's crunch time when it comes to holiday gifts. Give yourself a break and get the gift that six in 10 consumers say they want — a gift card.
Gift cards are an almost foolproof gift, and more consumers are seeing the value in giving and receiving them. This year, gift card spending is up 4 percent over last year. The average amount shoppers will spend on gift cards ($163.16) is the highest amount in the 11-year history of the National Retail Federation's Gift Card Spending survey.
A quarter of shoppers surveyed think gift cards are too impersonal, but 43 percent say gift cards give the recipient the option to choose the gift he or she wants.
Gift cards from Wal-Mart have been the most-wanted card for three consecutive years, according to GiftCardRescue.com, with Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc.), T.J. Maxx, Starbucks and Home Depot rounding out the top five this year.
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Shopping for gift cards can make your life a lot easier, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, don't throw away your receipt. I recently tried to use a gift card that had never been activated. Some stores issue activation receipts, but generally, you have to trust the store clerk to do it correctly. Holding on to your receipt might help you get the gift card value restored if the recipient has trouble using it or if the card is lost or stolen. Register any gift cards you receive as soon as possible.
Some retailers have begun blurring the lines between gift cards and prepaid reloadable gift cards (such as the Reloadable Wal-Mart Gift Card), according to Cardhub.com. But reloadable prepaid cards are not covered by the Credit Card Act's rules for gift cards and may expire at any time. By comparison, standard gift cards cannot expire until five years after the issue date (though they might lose some value).
If you're looking for a discount on gift cards, try the many gift card exchange websites that let you buy traditional gift cards at discounts ranging from 1 percent to 40 percent off. Another strategy is to use reward points from your credit card to buy gift cards. And remember, general purpose cards such as those from Visa or American Express typically charge purchase fees.
Online shoppers should know that 30 percent of gift cards from major retailers charge for shipping, according to Cardhub.com. Avoid these fees by sending an e-gift card ... or just run to the nearest store while you still have time.