Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ho, ho, hold on to your wallet

Tis the season to be jolly, or so the song says.

Of course, what most of us find is that it is more of a season to say "oh, golly."

As in "Oh golly, I have too much to do" or "Oh golly I'm supposed to buy something for the janitor at my kids' school, too?" (You might use another, more powerful phrase than "Oh golly" but I have no control over who reads this, so I want to stay family-oriented. )

Don't get me wrong, I am no Grinch. I love the holidays, whether it is Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, the Winter Solstice or some ancient Himalayan ritual you celebrate. I am all in favor of anything that involves chocolate.

What bothers me, though, is not just the commercialization. It's been that way as long as I've been alive so that is all I know. What particularly struck me this morning on the radio was an advertisement by a bank, encouraging people to come in and buy a gift card for that special someone.

A bank?! Why not just stuff an envelope full of cash and be done with it? Too crass? Well, what's the difference? The recipient doesn't immediately know the amount, so the first response can't be "what a cheapskate." With the equivalent of a credit card with a specific limit, the bank credit card does not even say to the givee "I know you like to shop at Potholders Paradise,
so go wild. "

All a gift card says is "I didn't want to think about what you might like, so go buy it yourself."

Sure, at roughly 2x3 inches, a card is a lot easier to mail than the cello little Tommy has always wanted. Saves postage, saves time, saves thought... what more could you want?

Personally, I feel that if a person does not know enough about me to choose an appropriate gift, they shouldn't be buying me one.

"What if they already have everything?" you may posit. No one has everything. If he/she does have everything, a gift card is probably not going to rock his/her world. At least not one you can afford.

Why not just buy something you think the person would like -- yes, actually put some thought into it -- and attach the receipt (many stores now offer gift receipts without the exact price right there for everyone to see). If it is a duplicate or the wrong color/size/brand/whatever, it can be exchanged.

"Oh but that's so much trouble," you may say. What's the difference? The recipient would have to go to the store, just as he/she would with a gift card, and find the right size/color/brand/whatever, just as he/she would with a gift card. The biggest difference would be that there is a limited time for exchanges, so it gets done! No anonymous cards floating around in a wallet for months.

The people who would not take the time to exchange something probably would not take the time to use a gift card either, at least not at the time and in the spirit in which the gift was intended. As research has shown, more than one-fourth of gift cards purchased are never used. And many cards contain that teeny-tiny print with (to use the words of Robin Williams' Genie ) terms, conditions, limitations, exceptions and provisos that may make your gift not as valuable as you intended. An excellent report from Montgomery County (MD) rates cards and points out common problems: http://www.montgomerycountymd.gov/content/ocp/giftcards2007final.pdf

Gift cards do have their place, though. For example, group gifts, say, for the teacher or boss. How many apple magnets can one person use, after all. And pooling a bunch of $5 contributions does make a nicer statement than a load of coffee mugs.

As in many situations, food is an answer. Large restaurant chains and even smaller spots offer the cards or just the old-fashioned gift certificate. Let's face it, everyone eats.

Another acceptable use is for kids, who think it is so fun to go to the store and pick out what they want. It is a trap for the parents though. Say Great-Aunt Judy sends little Emma a gift card for $10 because, well, Judy hasn't shopped for toys lately. What Emma just has to have at the toy store is $14.99 (because you've bought everything else already), so guess who has to fork over the other $4.99+tax. Just try explaining tax to a five-year-old.

Though a good idea at the heart, the gift card seems to have become one more way for the retail sector to take our money, as the old election joke goes, early and often.

After all, it is supposed to be the thought that counts, so how 'bout we put a little thought into it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really admire you for doing this! Of course, I'm facing the same holiday dilemma. A small thing I'm doing for the first time is making calendars with photos of the past year (or more). One will be called "Dogs of our Lives." It is a fun project. Liz