Holiday Shopping: Yikes!

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As I write this, it is one day before Halloween, one day before North Americans jive to the Monster Mash and Time Warp, shed their standard wardrobe in favor of a scary, weird, sexy and/or funny costume, watch a horror flick or two, and feast on anything and everything sweet and tasty and completely and utterly unhealthy (except for that dentist, you know who you are, who seems to live in every neighborhood, taking perverse pleasure in handing out toothbrushes and floss and moralizing lectures to kids bent on releasing their inner hound and getting as much candy as they can while the getting’s good).

It’s a totally chilled holiday. A spirited (think ghosts and goblins and spooky pumpkins) celebration void of gifts (other than candy) and sentimentality (except for those who wake up the next morning wishing they hadn’t gorged on chocolate or generously imbibed other feel good, mind altering products; now realizing that gluttony comes with costs, i.e., morning after cymbal drum pounding headache and/or digestive system staging urgent revolt). But hey, even for those who over indulged, the body has an amazing way of righting the ship, eventually, and memory is ever so short that we do it all over again next year.

And before you’ve taken down toilet paper decorations wrapped around colorful autumn trees, and recovered from wolfing down half your kids candy while blaming missing goodies on the sleeping dog, out comes the same old jingle bell ditties, blaring over and over and over on AM radio, because up next on the Gregorian calendar is THE HOLIDAY SEASON.

You know what that means? Open up your wallet because this is make or break time for a whole lot of retail stores and there’s tremendous societal pressure on consumers to buy stuff (see, we’re not really individual people; rather, the corporate world sees consumers as pods existing to be persuaded, cajoled, encouraged, to spend, spend, SPEND whatever you have and more than you have).

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Know This About Gift Cards

But now is not the time or place for rants against mindless consumerism (for those so inclined, take a peek here). Rather, this post is for those who don’t have time or energy to buy the perfect gift for everyone on their list, opting instead for a gift card.

It’s a huge, colossal, business, gift cards, with about $150 Billion spent on cards annually. And they’re convenient and almost as good as cash.

But even if you give an iTunes card to a music lover, unlike cash, there’s a decent chance that music lover will not use all of your gift. Because every year, several billion dollars worth of money spent on gift cards remains unused. And guess who gleefully pockets the unspent dough? The company issuing the card. Probably not the gift you had in mind.

Then there are those people who place the gift card in a drawer and promptly forget about it. Others lose the cards. And some wait too long before using the card, letting it expire before the feeling of shopping takes hold. Or the card balance is reduced by activation fees or other issuer fees: don’t use the card within a limited time period (usually 12 months) and the card issuer may charge a monthly inactivity fee. For the most part, store specific cards aren’t saddled with extra fees, but you typically get nickel and dimed with Visa or MasterCard branded cards (i.e., monthly service fee, cash advance fee, foreign currency conversion fee …need I continue?)

As for the card buyer, mostly with the Visa and Mastercard gift cards (essentially a debit card), you’ll be paying a privilege fee to purchase the card (anywhere from $3-$15). And if the card is lost or stolen, some issuers will replace the card for a fee, others say you’re out of luck.

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The Rap

“They’re so impersonal.”

“Talk about giving no effort.”

“What if the card issuing retailer goes out of business before the card is used?”

These are common refrains surrounding gift cards, along with carping about card fees and people not using, or losing, the cards.

On the upside, gift cards allow people to buy what they want, making it more likely they will enjoy the gift; not to mention less stress for you, the purchaser, who no longer has to worry about what the heck you should buy Sandy or Thor. And for last minute mad about town shoppers, well, you can send e-cards instantly to a recipients email.

Personally, I prefer giving cash. Really. I mean, if the tackiness element has been removed from gift cards, why does it remain for cash? Is there any difference? A gift card is, essentially, cash in the form of a pretty little socially acceptable seemingly fun to receive card. And the bonus is that, other than potentially getting lost, cash doesn’t have any hangups, i.e., fees, expiry dates or restrictions on using funds at only one store.

Ya, I know, that’s just poor taste! Uh huh. And taste evolves. That’s how gift cards have come to be THE most requested gift for the holidays.

Here’s the thing: I’ve given cash and I’ve given gift cards. Why? Plain and simple: convenience and laziness. And it’s not something I’m proud of. Nope. Instead, when it comes to gift giving, what makes me feel good is giving effort. Really, just thinking about who is the recipient, understanding their wants and needs, and making an educated guess as to what they would like. And if I’m stuck, then I call them and ask: ‘hey, I want to give you a gift. What would you like?’

That’s a gift in itself, thinking well about someone else, focusing on someone else, wanting to do something nice for another person. And if you live in the same city as the recipient, you could even do something totally radical and old fashioned like, oh, I don’t know, spending time with the recipient, hanging out together, talking about life, laughing, sharing a cup of hot chocolate or whatever moves you. That’s a true gift that never goes out of style: sharing our self, our caring nature, our friendship, with another person. Sure, an outdated notion. But one that we would do well to reintroduce into our life.