Make us your home page
Instagram

Gift cards' value tied to retailers' fortunes

On Wall Street, lawmakers are talking about how "toxic debt" threatens banks and lending. Out on Main Street, shoppers better start thinking about "toxic" gift cards from companies that could go bankrupt. They won't be worth the plastic they are printed on.

There's a new realization that holding a gift card from a troubled retailer is like having a bank account without FDIC insurance.

Shoppers spent an estimated $26.3-billion on gift cards at retailers last Christmas season, compared with $24.8-billion in 2006 and $18.5-billion in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation.

"I am very wary of gift cards this year and do not plan to use any of them at all during the holiday season. I simply do not trust the companies unless they put on a label saying that they are fully returnable at face value," said Dr. Richard Glassock of Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Already some big retailers, including Sharper Image and Bombay Co., have filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving gift card holders with millions of dollars of what the Bankruptcy Court considers unsecured debt. Both chains have since closed.

Consumers Union said that when Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy protection this year, it left an estimated $20-million on unused gift cards and maybe as much as $40-million when merchandise certificates and related promotional cards were included. At first Sharper Image said it would not honor the credits. Later it successfully petitioned the court to allow it to accept gift cards if consumers spent twice the value of the gift card on a single transaction.

"That wasn't such a good deal, and who knows if anybody used their cards that way?" said Anthony Giorgianni, associate editor of Consumer Reports, which is published by Consumers Union.

Gift card holders could lose more than $75-million just from store and restaurant closings in 2008, said Brian Riley, senior analyst at Tower Group, a consulting company.

"The only way that number will change is up," Riley said.

Consumer groups are worried about how little shoppers are protected when spending all that money. In September, a coalition of organizations asked the Federal Trade Commission to protect shoppers from losing money on gift cards when retailers file for bankruptcy protection.

It said retailers should be required to place money from gift card sales in a trust account that would be used to honor the cards if the merchants continued operations under the protection of the Bankruptcy Court. Consumers Union, Consumers Federation of America, National Consumer Law Center and the advocacy group U.S. PIRG are all behind the proposal.

FTC spokesman Mitchell J. Katz said the agency had received the petition, "and we are determining what our response will be."

Unless the federal government steps in and regulates the industry, shoppers will lose the value of their gift cards when a merchant files for bankruptcy. The company can petition the court to allow it to continue to accept its gift cards, but the bankruptcy judge has the option to reject such a petition, which would leave the cards worthless, Giorgianni said.

In cases in which a company is reorganized or sold and remains a continuing business, most owners will receive court authority to honor the cards as a way to maintain goodwill with consumers and drive customer traffic, said Marty Zohn, a bankruptcy attorney with Proskauer Rose in Los Angeles.

But in outright liquidations, in which the stores are closed, shoppers will be out of luck in most cases, he said.

$26.3-billion

How much consumers spent on gift cards at retailers last Christmas season, compared with $24.8-billion in 2006 and $18.5-billion in 2005.

"Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj Xj"

Name Goeshere, attribution words will go right here. attribution words will go right here. Story, XA

$75-million

How much gift card holders could lose just from store and restaurant closings in 2008.

$20-million

Value of unused gift cards when the Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy protection this year. The amount may be closer to $40-million when merchandise certificates and related promotional cards were included.

Calculated risk

Circuit City, which this month closed stores across the country and started bankruptcy proceedings, said it would still accept gift cards at its remaining stores. But Greg Daugherty, executive editor at Consumer Reports, offers these words of caution: "Consumers need to think twice about buying anything at Circuit City, given that it may or may not be around in coming months." Most electronic products sold at Circuit City and other stores are backed by manufacturers' warranties. Circuit City said it would continue to accept returns as before and to honor its add-on warranties, which were secured by third-party financial institutions.

McClatchy-Tribune

Gift cards' value tied to retailers' fortunes 11/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:06am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Los Angeles Times.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Water Hogs: During drought, hundreds of Tampa Bay homes guzzled a gallon of water a minute

    Drought

    When Amalie Oil president Harry Barkett plunked down $6.75-million for his Bayshore Boulevard mansion, he picked up 12.5 bathrooms, a pool, a hot tub, an elevator and a deck bigger than some one-bedroom apartments.

    During one of the worst droughts in the Tampa Bay region's history, hundreds of houses used more than a gallon of water a minute. ALESSANDRA DA PRA  |   Times

  2. Gov. Scott's tough talk on Venezuela may not turn into economic action

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — To show his solidarity with Venezuelans, Gov. Rick Scott held a rally in South Florida and repeatedly promised to punish companies that do business with the Nicolás Maduro regime.

    Gov. Rick Scott held a rally July 10 at El Arepazo restaurant to show solidarity with Venezuelans. Scott has said he wants to punish companies that work with the Nicol?s Maduro regime.
  3. Pinellas licensing board asks Sen. Jack Latvala for $500,000 loan

    Local Government

    The troubled Pinellas County agency that regulates contractors wants Sen. Jack Latvala to help it get a $500,000 lifeline from the state to stay afloat.

    State Sen . Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, is being asked to help the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board get $500,000 from the state so it can stay open beyond February.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  4. In advertising, marketing diversity needs a boost in Tampa Bay, nationally

    Business

    TAMPA — Trimeka Benjamin was focused on a career in broadcast journalism when she entered Bethune-Cookman University.

    From left, Swim Digital marketing owner Trimeka Benjamin discusses the broad lack of diversity in advertising and marketing with 22 Squared copywriter Luke Sokolewicz, University of Tampa advertising/PR professor Jennifer Whelihan, Rumbo creative director George Zwierko and Nancy Vaughn of the White Book Agency. The group recently met at The Bunker in Ybor City.
  5. Tampa Club president seeks assessment fee from members

    News

    TAMPA — The president of the Tampa Club said he asked members last month to pay an additional assessment fee to provide "additional revenue." However, Ron Licata said Friday that the downtown business group is not in a dire financial situation.

    Ron Licata, president of the Tampa Club in downtown Tampa. [Tampa Club]