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Who got a gift card this holiday season? Just about everyone

Gift card kiosks, like this one at a CVS pharmacy in New York, are in many stores.

Associated Press (2009)

Gift card kiosks, like this one at a CVS pharmacy in New York, are in many stores.

Call them impersonal and unimaginative, but gift cards were once again the most popular gift this holiday season.

About eight in 10 shoppers bought a gift card, a foolproof way of ensuring people get just what they want. Holiday gift card spending was expected to reach $30 billion, about 5 percent of overall spending.

I bought a few — Dunkin' Donuts for my dad, Jimmy John's for a friend. I also received a few, including Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

At least on my end, all of them will be used and enjoyed. I've already eaten through my Publix gift card and entered my Barnes & Noble card for future downloads. I don't care if they aren't as fun to open as a new set of fluffy towels. To me, gift cards are like free money for stuff I would buy anyway.

The days and weeks after Christmas are huge for redeeming gift cards and were particularly important this season after lackluster sales. Couple gift cards with post-holiday deals and you can get items for a fraction of the original cost.

Retailers like gift cards, as well, even though they don't record the sale until the cards are redeemed. Studies have shown that shoppers using gift cards consistently spend more than the card amount. I know I do. My $50 Publix card? I ended up spending $32 more.

But gift cards aren't without pitfalls. More than $1 billion worth of gift cards purchased last year will go unused, according to an annual gift card report by CEB TowerGroup, a financial services advisory company. That's a lot of trips to Target but significantly less than in the past, when the loss value exceeded $8 billion in 2007. Obviously, we're treating our gift cards with respect.

Some of those cards will get forgotten in drawers and others will just get partially redeemed. Sadly, a good chunk will get lost, like my Sweetbay card that I fear got swept up with wrapping paper and landed in the trash.

Gift cards have been around since the mid 1990s but got a boost in 2010 when the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act took effect. Known as the CARD Act, it said gift cards can't expire before five years and can start losing value only if they go unused for at least a year.

Still, think before you buy. If a retailer goes belly-up, your gift card might become worthless. When Borders closed its stores, 17.7 million people holding more than $210 million in gift cards got zilch.

Of course, there will always be gift card flops. Maybe there isn't a store nearby. Or there isn't a single thing in the store that you want, which seems doubtful.

Websites like GiftCardRescue.com and GiftCardGranny.com buy and sell unwanted gift cards. Just be prepared to get less than face value. That $100 gift card to Olive Garden might fetch $80. Not looking for cash? PlasticJungle.com lets you exchange gift cards for Best Buy points, CVS gift cards and United Airlines miles.

Plenty of charities also accept gift cards online, even ones with only a partial amount left. If your favorite one doesn't, use the gift card to buy items the group needs.

Perhaps the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted gift card is to regift it. You might have no interest in spending $50 at Cracker Barrel but someone you know does.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Who got a gift card this holiday season? Just about everyone 01/13/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014 10:31pm]
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