NEW YORK -- With the holidays approaching, many people are looking for ways to simplify gift giving. One increasingly popular method is to send a gift certificate or a gift card.
Industry experts estimate that gift certificates and gift cards, which look like decorative credit cards, account for more than 3 percent of retail sales. Demand is especially high as Americans prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.
Etiquette mavens of yesteryear probably would have frowned upon gift certificates and cards as impersonal. But in this age of the computer -- and the distances that divide families -- they've become more socially acceptable.
"What could be more personal than allowing someone to pick out what they want?" said Michael Ahern, chief executive officer of GiftCertificates.com, an internet company based in Seattle. "And gift certificates and cards are certainly less tacky than cash."
They're also an easy way for busy people to handle gift-giving.
Last month, Eric Schacht, 35, a safety manager at a trucking company in Champaign, Ill., had no gift in hand with his brother Marshall's birthday fast approaching. He went online and purchased a gift card.
"I could do it from my desk, and he can spend it wherever he wants," Eric Schacht said.
"It better be for something fun," he added.
Marshall, a 33-year-old high school football coach, came through with a similar present for Eric's birthday -- a gift certificate to a bookstore.
"We used to buy gifts for each other, but that was when we spent a lot of time together and knew what each other wanted," Marshall said. "This way we can get something we really want -- rather than gifts we'll never use."
Both brothers say they'll probably look into gift cards for Christmas giving, too.
Retail stores for years have sold gift certificates, and the practice has been picked up by online retailers as well. A big chunk of the business is not individuals but companies that want to provide something for their workers at the holidays.
New this year are programs by American Express and Visa to provide gift cards that can be used for products or services at any retailer that accepts their credit cards.
Randall Beard, a vice president at American Express, said there's rising demand for what he calls "monetary gifting" -- cash certificates, gift certificates and gift cards.
"People want to give a gift to a family member or a friend that's a good gift, but they often don't know what to get them, or they're worried it will be wrong," Beard said.
John Kresge, head of consumer market development for Visa International, said the Visa gift card was aimed at consumers "who want to move away from a certificate or card good only in a particular store or a particular mall, that has more utility."
The gift cards are available online at American Express' site, www.americanexpress.com, and Visa's, www.visa.com. The Visa site links to member banks such as Bank of America, Fleet and National City that actually issue the cards.
But you should note that these cards can carry fees for buyers, unlike those purchased in retail stores.
Fees range from $5 to $7, said Steve Diamond, a Visa vice president for debit products. Christmas. The AmEx card has a flat fee of $5.95.
Ahern's site at www.giftcertificates.com offers gift certificates and cards for dozens of retail partners.
It also sells its own SuperCertificate, which can be mailed or e-mailed, Ahern said. The recipient can "spend" the certificate at online stores, such as book seller Amazon.com, or for certificates to their favorite brick-and-mortar retailers. Fees start at $2.95.
"A real advantage is speed," Ahern said. "If it's Christmas Eve and you forgot somebody, you can order online and it will be there Christmas Day."
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