Gift Cards: the Non-Gift Gift

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Given the popularity of Facebook friendships, Second Lives and virtual beers, it's no surprise that gift-giving has gone virtual as well. Over the last two years, Hitwise has tracked a steady increase in searches for that most impersonal of non-gifts: the gift card. This year, searches for the term "gift card" are up more than 19%, compared with 2006. And the trend isn't just toward gift cards, but, specifically, toward the most nondescript gift cards there are: the credit card–branded gift card. The Gap gift card is too personal, apparently; what people really want to give this year is the generic American Express or Visa gift card — essentially, cash. Who says you can't put a price on love?

Whatever that love is worth, however, it seems that people want to get it at a bargain. The top "gift card" searches include "free gift cards," "discount gift cards" and "half-priced gift cards." So, basically, we want our gift-giving to be convenient, thought-free — and cheap. I searched for "free gift card" to see what people were after: Apparently, there are a number of companies that will provide you with a free gift card, if you're willing to turn over all of your personal information. My advice: Spend the cash now; you might save bundles later by avoiding a bureaucratic battle to get your identity back.

A perusal of the top 500 "gift card" searches indicates that we are not only outsourcing the choice of gift (to the giftee), but the presentation of it as well: Search-term data shows several variations on the quest for "gift wrapping for gift cards." Now, I would never claim to be a gift-wrapping aficionado — and anyone who has received a wrinkled and lumpy present from me in the past will attest to that fact — but even I am fairly confident that winding a piece of colored paper around a flat, rectangular object can be done without much difficulty.

As we get further down the list of "gift card" searches, things get more interesting. There are several instances of the search term "homemade gift card." Presumably these people are looking to make homemade greeting cards, not gift cards. Or perhaps they're planning to make homemade gift cards, the kind you can redeem for back rubs or a week's worth of chores. Cheap? Sure. But at least it's imaginative.

The peak of interest in "gift cards" occurs, not surprisingly, on Dec. 23 and 24, as "online gift cards" rise in the search-term ranks. With online gift cards — even less intimate than an actual credit card–style card — you can purchase and bestow your gift not only thoughtlessly but also at the very last minute. And, huzzah! No gift-wrapping necessary.

I'm curious to see the full evolution of this anti-gift craze. In order to maximize convenience for both the giver and the recipient, maybe next season we'll see "online direct deposit gift cards." We're all busy people after all, and it's not the gift that really matters. It's the thought that counts.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise