The gift card shuffle

The holiday shopping season has only just begun.

Who cares that holiday spending fell short of expectations this season? The real shopping is happening right now.

Gift cards, according to a survey by American Express and the International Council of Shopping Centers, were the third most popular item this season, behind only clothing and CDs and DVDs. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans were expected to spend $26.3 billion on them this year, up from a paltry $18.5 billion two years ago. As bad as that news is for the wrapping paper industry, it's good news for the retail economy. Because gift card purchases aren't recorded until the card is actually redeemed, it's safe to say that the holiday shopping season will continue well into the new year.

The gift card craze appears to be due in part to Safeway Inc., which has introduced "gift card malls" into tens of thousands of stores around the country -- not just Safeway-owned stores but also CVS pharmacies and rival Kroger Co. supermarkets, to name a few.

Here in Southern California, that means we can walk into a Vons and be greeted by such an enormous selection of gift cards -- there are more than 200, from Pizza Hut to Land's End to Vons itself -- that we forget all about the actual items we went to the store to purchase. After half an hour of wondering whether spending $50 on a JetBlue card seems more "thoughtful" than $75 on a Home Depot card, we leave the store with both, only to return later for the milk we meant to buy in the first place.

That means more face time at the gift card mall and more future revenue for Smokey Bones restaurants, which I can't imagine anyone actually patronizing unless they have a gift card. In any case, this apparently is how retail phenomena are made.

I bought several gift cards this year, and as grateful as I was to trade the mall for Vons, the experience left me feeling empty and a bit ashamed. It's as though I had opted to take a class pass/fail, not because the material was difficult but because I was too lazy to study; the gift cards seemed like the ultimate cop-out.

Worse, they were cop-outs that essentially had price tags still attached. It's hard to say what's most indelicate about this whole exchange: the fact that gift cards are about as personal as a ream of copier paper (since many of the retail outfits that offer gift cards are just as likely to carry barbecue grills as Nair leg-hair remover, it's not as if it's necessary to tailor the store to the recipient) or that they take the oldest edict of gift giving -- "it's the thought that counts" -- and put it out to pasture along with all that obsolete wrapping paper. With gift cards, the dollar amount is the thought.

In the old days, these thoughts were expressed simply by giving people money in the form of cash, check or a quarter pulled out of an ear by some halitosis-plagued uncle. But today, brand names and corporate logos provide a sense of comfort that not even cash can compete with. Is it because credit and debit cards have allowed us to push actual greenbacks to the margins of our lives, so that cash is often relegated to tips at the car wash or handouts to the homeless on the street?

Maybe, but perhaps it's also because consumerism has become such a dizzying proposition that the most thoughtful gift we can give our loved ones (short of donating to charity in their names, which doesn't usually go over big with 5-year-olds) is to minimize the chaos of shopping. That not only means sparing our family and friends the ill-chosen dividends of our own gift-purchasing efforts, but forcing them to do the very thing we were once warned against: spend all their (read: our) money in one place.

When all the world's a store, that can feel like sweet relief.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

CHICAGO

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