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Health Team

Personalizing Impersonal Gift Cards

Posted November 29, 2007
Updated December 1, 2007

— Gift cards can seem like an easy way out - a pocket-sized piece of plastic with the smell of a last-minute cop-out.

But as impersonal as they may be, most people like getting them. This is the first year that the National Retail Federation's initial holiday consumer-spending survey found more people saying they'd like a gift card than any other category of gifts, including books and CDs, apparel and electronics.

"Consumers realize that what they've had their eye on all season can finally end up in their hands at the end of the season if they get a gift card," says Kathy Grannis, NRF spokeswoman.

This is where retailers are stepping in as Santa's elves. They've jazzed up gift cards and come up with creative ways to personalize them. Now you can record an audio message for an American Eagle gift card, add someone's name to an American Express Gift Card, or download a family photo or your own artwork as the backdrop for a gift card to home-improvement store Lowe's.

If time is of the essence, JCPenney will e-mail you an e-Gift Card before sending it to the intended recipient to give you a chance to add a personal message, or you can at least choose from dozens of designs at megastores like Target, zeroing in on a snowman that plays a holiday song for a child or one with a naughty or nice meter - perhaps for a teenager.

"We hope this commitment to design and innovation makes the holidays easier for our guests by making gift giving both easy and personal, and by giving our guests a wide selection of GiftCards - and products - from which to choose," says Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

The personal touch is as much for the giver as the receiver, says Abby Buford, a Lowe's spokeswoman.

"You want people to know you've put some work into it, that you've thought about that person," she says. "Maybe they're a fan of a certain kind of dog or they decorate an elaborate Christmas tree - now the gift card can reflect that."

Customization is a nice thought, says Lisa Lerner of Chappaqua, New York, but it's not going to change her plans. Teachers and teenage boys are the most likely gift card recipients because she honestly wouldn't know what to get them, she says.

"These are people I'd have trouble choosing for, and I think they'd rather choose their own gift and get something they want," Lerner explains.

According to an American Express Gift Card survey of 1,009 adults earlier in the season, the popularity of gift cards is actually changing the way people shop. Gift cards were expected to total a quarter of holiday-gift spending, and more than two-thirds of those who buy gift cards said they finish their shopping sooner and with less stress.

The National Retail Federation estimates that gift-card spending over the holidays will total $26.3 billion.

Janine Fetterolf of North Salem, New York, says she likes knowing that a gift card probably will be used on a splurge item. She also gives them to her children's teachers - but she wouldn't mind getting more herself.

"When my mom asks me what I want for my birthday, I say a gift card to Gap. Then I'll really spend it on myself," she says. "If you get cash, who knows where it goes."

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