Solving a better problem

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?


Anonymous said...

Sara - nice article on gift cards. They are definitely a popular item and growing more popular all the time. Last year around the holidays my wife and I found ourselves with a bunch of gift cards - some new, some old, some we were never going to spend. We wanted choice but the merchants would not exchange the cards for cash. So we decided to do it for them and for everyone else in the same situation as us. We launched a gift card exchange service called Star Gift Card Exchange. We're based in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Please pay us a visit online at http://www.stargiftcardexchange.com
We're always open to suggestions on how to help folks take control of their gift cards. And keep up the good work.


Adam said...

This is a terrific post, Sara, Gift cards (or vouchers as we Europeans still seem to call them) are indeed tedious, but your suggestions would make a simple and popular product a lot more fun. I just love the vase idea...

Your "more personal, more meaningful and less awkward" sentence is as good a recipe for improved experience design as I have ever read. It is your own coining?

Cheers and thanks for a great read,


Nancy said...

I am a school teacher at an affluent private school, where teachers receive gifts three times a year (winter holidays, teacher appreciation week, end of the school year). I would rather receive a gift card than anything else (but cash)! How many bookmarks, notepaper, and bath gel does one need?

Hillary said...

on ebay sometimes, items are priced such that the minimum price is hidden and if no buyers offer that minimum, the item goes unsold.

that plus your idea about a scanner and making the visible-money-amount less awkward made me think...

what if you could set a maximum amount of money to spend. like, if i was buying you a birthday present, i might say "i am willing to spend $50 at most on sara." then, you'd get a scanner thing to try and purchase items. when you went to the store, you'd look for something that you'd like to get from me. you'd scan it and see if it's within the price range i set. if it is, you get it and i'm charged that amount (even if it's only $35). if it's too high, you have the option to put $50 towards it and put in the rest yourself.

i guess retailers would hate this idea b/c you can spend LESS than the amount offered. but it'd be a means to improving the experience.

or it could be like that kids brother-sister game show from the 80s. like, you could purchase items if they matched what i thought you might like (like a registry of sorts).

hmm. anyway. that woodfield thing is ridiculous. esp. b/c the packaging is still ugly! i do like, however, that it's a mall card and not a store card. less personal but more usefull.

oh, and i like restaurant / experience cards better than store ones. deb and her doctor friends get lettuce entertain you (is that how you spell it?) cards every holiday. we had a blast going to nacional 27 a few weeks ago.

Stacy said...

Sara said, "There is nothing about the gift card, save your choice of store, that personalizes the present." But the Mall Gift Card even takes the personal-ness out of that! "Oh look, I chose the mall closest to your home!" How thoughtful.

I understand the thought process behind it--no one wants to have to spend money at a store they never shop at--but it still just seems like an even further step away from thinking about the gift. Oh, and have you seen the American Express gift cards? They aren't even linked to a mall! It's basically a credit card with a small limit.

Nancy, I think your situation falls under Sara's "you can't go wrong" / I don't know that person too well scenario. People assume teachers need coffee mugs because hey, it's not like they know what size you are or where you shop. And everyone drinks coffee! The parents don't even spend time in the classroom with you! So yes, a gift card is the best bet in that situation.

sara said...

Thanks for all your comments! Arlen, the dilemma you found yourself in is very interesting. It makes me think the balance is off in this world - that gift cards have been designed to maximize convenience for the purchaser, at greater and greater expense to the receiver. More people are happy buying gift cards, while less people are happy receiving them.

Your service, on the other hand, was designed to meet the needs of the recipient. Thanks for tipping the scales back in the right direction.

Hey Adam, it's great to hear from you. Yes, everything I write is my own coining, unless it's cited. Thanks for the feedback! I do believe personal, meaningful and comfortable are good design principles for gift cards, though I also believe any experience should be analyzed for its own improvement needs.

Have you read The Experience Economy? I believe they say a commodity is fungible, a good is tangible, a service is personal and an experience is memorable. I always thought "memorable" was a great design principle.

Nancy, I agree with Stacy that in your case a gift card makes the most sense. But what if your husband gave you a gift card? Wouldn't that be a little disappointing? (Maybe not, but just a thought).

Hillary, your idea of "pick something but don't go over the limit" reminds me of The Price is Right. :) Retailers might hate it, if I ended up spending less than the maximum, but you as the giver might like it because you are charged less, and you would know that price constraints weren't the only factor in my decision (that I actually found something I really wanted). I guess the lesson is, "People might be totally satisfied with things that cost less than you think."

Plus, research has shown that most people end up spending more than the total on the gift card, when they go in to redeem it. How much do you think this is because they found something they loved for $24, but their gift card was for $30? "Great, what can I spend $6 on? Oh, here's something that's okay, for $15." The gift card getter has to chip in to complete their own present, because no human can leave money on the table. Annoying!

I currently have a gift card to a restaurant, that was for $50. We went to this restaurant last year. We tried to spend just enough, without going over. I think we spent like $45. I still have the gift card. It has $5 left. If I go to this restaurant, I'm not going to order one appetizer and then pay! I will spend more. So, along the lines of Hillary's idea, let's instead say the gift card is for "one meal at this restaurant." There is a secret limit of $50. If I spend less, that extra money is neither spent nor charged. If I spend more, I pay the difference.

I think this would alleviate a lot of the money awkwardness of gift cards - if instead of "money cards," they were actually "gift cards," representing an item rather than a dollar amount.

Whoo, longest comment ever!

Mario Vellandi said...

Wow Sara! I absolutely love your write-up on a product that the retailer has complete design and control of.

I actually like the additional design treatment you had shows. It is very creative in the least. But you are right in that it's still just a freakin gift card. Personalization options are widely available today, although it does mandate some unique thinking and web tools development to make it work. They have the money though, so why not?

I say if there are already SO MANY giftcards available these days, especially at some supermarkets I've been to where the whole endcap seems to have a gazillion different retailers...make it a unique shopping experience so that the purchaser doesn't necessarily feel they're taking the easy way out. Differentiate!

Thanks again :D

Allison said...

I just came across your post and found it very interesting in light of a client I work with.

Seastone (www.seastone.com) manufactures gift card packaging, but a little different from the packaging you purchased. They encourage retailers to implement displays that include coordinated gift cards and packaging in various designs and for various occasions. The gift card packaging is an add on that can be chosen by the consumer.

Although it may not address all of your concerns, Seastone does allow retailers to let consumers put some thought into their purchase. For instance, during the holidays you can walk into Home Depot, go to the gift card display, and choose say a little stocking, a tin, or a stuffed animal that meets the personality of the recipient.

Great ideas about take home items to go along with a gift card purchase!

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