I recently bought gift cards for a project at work. I don't typically buy gift cards, so it had been a while. But in case you too prefer more tangible presents, let me send you a transmission from the world of gift cards: Things are getting crazy over here!
First, a brief summary of why people DO buy gift cards. They don't know the person that well. They don't feel confident in their ability to find the right gift. They imagine the recipient would prefer to do their own shopping. They have a very set budget. Gift cards are convenient and "you can't go wrong."
Next, a brief summary of why people DON'T buy gift cards. They are impersonal. They ask the recipient to do the work of shopping. They are the equivalent of handing someone cash. They say exactly how much you spent. They seem generic and trivial. They are "a cop-out."
Regardless, sales of gift cards are rising each year, and so I have to imagine shoppers are weighing the pros favorably against the cons. But some of those cons are still keeping shoppers like me away, so I think there's room for improvement.
But hold the phone. I said improvement, not meaningless, over-the-top embellishment. Folks, the gift cards I purchased were from Woodfield Mall, an upscale shopping center in the Chicago suburbs. Each card came with six (6) items.
You've got your card, you've got your note, you've got your envelope, you've got your box, your sleeve, and your bag. Card goes in envelope with note, envelope goes in box, box slides into sleeve, and sleeve drops into bag. Can we say, overpackaged?
Now, I think I know what the designers of the Woodfield Mall gift card extravaganza were thinking. They probably had research which said, "30% of our shoppers agree that gift cards are not an adequate gift." So they did the first thing that came to mind: they dressed it up. Made it fancier. Now it looks more like jewelry, or chocolates. There are at least three moments of surprise in this experience - opening the bag, opening the box, and opening the envelope. I'd even venture to guess that when someone finally gets to the card inside, they're a bit let down. "What's this? Ooh, what's this? Ooooh, now what's this? Oh, a gift card."
But even if that recipient is pleased as punch to get a gift card to a mall, I'm not sure this redesign has made anyone a born-again gift card believer. Because I feel they have solved the wrong problem.
They went from a generic problem (gift cards aren't good enough) to a generic solution (let's make them seem better). But let's try digging a little deeper, shall we? Why aren't they good enough?
1. Because they are impersonal. There is nothing about the gift card, save your choice of store, that personalizes the present. He's a sports nut? Let's get him a gift card to Foot Locker! But that was your only real "decision," and it's not exactly "thoughtful."
So, what are ways of making gift cards more personal? The store could print your name and a note right onto the card. How about a note in your handwriting? How about your picture on the card? Better yet, what if you could bring in an old photo of you and the recipient, and the store could screen the photo onto the back of the card? Now that card is a keepsake for his wallet!
Or maybe the store offers gift cards in ten designs, so you can pick the style he'll like best. Maybe you could design your own card? Choose pictures of items he might want, to suggest what he could buy with the card? And once he's chosen the gift, how about a personal follow-up? Maybe the card allows him to enter a photo booth in the store, take a picture of himself with the item, and send it to you?
The point is, surely stores can dream up ways of making the card reflect the giver, the recipient, or both.
2. Because they are trivial. It's just a piece of plastic, after all, and once he cashes it in, the experience is over. Sure, now he has an actual gift, but what role did the card play? It sat in his wallet. It's nothing more than a representation of money. Meh.
So, what are ways of making gift cards meaningful? Useful beyond their primary function? Able to be priced at higher than their dollar value? Well, maybe the gift card isn't a card. Maybe it's a vase. The person receives the vase, brings it to the flower shop, and gets a free bouquet. Or the gift card is a picture frame. She brings it to Sears Portrait Studio for a free session.
Furthermore, if you boil down the function of a gift card, its purpose is to represent a gift until someone actually gets it. Maybe the gift card is a wrapped, empty box? A shopping bag, which you bring to the store and fill? A scanner, which you use to zap the item that you want, a la wedding registries? Stores should think about how to make that gift card work a little harder, so that it creates value beyond its cash equivalent.
3. Because the money thing is awkward. This one is tough. You don't necessarily want the person to know right away how much you've spent on them, yet you want them to receive that amount in the store.
So, what are some ways of making gift card values less awkward? Well, maybe we could make the dollar amount less hush-hush. More explicit and interesting. I know that in Jewish tradition, checks are often written in multiples of 18, which is considered lucky. For a wedding, you might give a check for $72. Maybe we could make the dollar amounts totally flexible, to reflect something similarly cultural.
Or perhaps the money could reflect the occasion? My birthday is January 10th. I'd sure love a gift card for $110. Or even just $10, where the card had a little calendar with January 10th circled. Birthday gift cards. Stores could also keep the dollar amount hidden, until you get to the store and find out what you've got. Now you have to come in! Ooh, what if it was a lottery? All gift cards cost $20, and yours has a value of at least $20, but it might be a lucky $100 winner!
Retailers love gift cards for various reasons. Pay us now, take the merchandise later; try our store for the first time; chances are you'll spend more than the value of the card. So if it's important enough, retailers should be looking for ways to optimize this product.
My point is that there are plenty of ideas to be found, when you think about the problem in a more specific, user-centered way. Instead of saying gift cards should look nicer, get to more tangible goals. In this case, gift cards should be more personal, more meaningful and less awkward. These are quite simply more interesting problems to solve.
However, dear shopper, at the end of the day, you're still giving someone the equivalent of cash. My final suggestion: why don't you try picking out an actual gift?