In Time for the Holidays, Research Looks at Gift Cards

OGDEN, Utah – Why do so many people give gift cards? Do they consider gift cards the same as cash, or do they view them like traditional gifts? With the holiday shopping season right around the corner, marketing professors at Weber State University set out to answer those questions in new research on gift cards. 

“If nothing but economic value mattered, cash would be the ideal gift,” said E.K. Valentin, WSU marketing professor. “Recipients can spend cash on anything they want and givers save hours of shopping time, but non-cash gifts remain the most popular because of their emotional and symbolic aspects.” 

Marketing professors Valentin and Anthony Allred at WSU’s John B. Goddard School of Business & Economics surveyed 317 people throughout Northern Utah for their “Giving and Getting Gift Cards” research recently published in the “Journal of Consumer Marketing.”

Their research suggests cash-like gift cards that can be spent on ordinary, everyday household items have no more charm than cold-hard cash. Only 21 percent of respondents preferred to receive a cash-like card rather than a department store, electronics store, or restaurant card. 

Target gift cards were considered more appropriate gifts than cash or Walmart cards, which were considered the least appropriate. “Target’s image is more upscale than Walmart’s, which probably accounts for the gap,” Valentin said.

“Another interesting finding is that 49 percent preferred to give a gift card to a nice restaurant, but only 27 percent were thrilled to receive it,” Valentin said. “We also found that 33 percent were thrilled to receive a department store or jewelry gift card, but only 21 percent were likely to give them.”

Additional results showed gift cards from close friends are more appreciated when they can be redeemed for something special, and people feel less guilt when paying for personal luxuries with gift cards rather than cash. 

Valentin and Allred advise merchants to tailor messages to fit the giver’s motives and relationship with the recipient. “Promoting gift cards as time savers is likely to work when givers seek gifts for casual acquaintances, but not when they must find a gift for a dear friend,” Valentin said. “Merchants such as Target seem well-advised to remind anxious givers that giving goods can be hazardous while giving cash is crass.”

Department and jewelry store gift cards were considered more personal than Target cards, Walmart cards, or cash. “They entice recipients to purchase things they normally would not buy without a gift card, such as a bottle of expensive perfume or designer accessories,” Valentin said. “Giving a gift card that allows the freedom to indulge without feeling guilty may be the best gift of all for a close friend.”  

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E.K. Valentin, professor of marketing
801-546-3932 •
Kimberly Jensen, University Communications
801-626-7581 •