Would You Like a Coupon with That?

With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, I've been doing my share of shopping. No one really wants anything these days, so the default gift is a gift card.

Buying a gift card is simple enough, but lately stores have been adding a new twist to such a seemingly simple process -- the bonus "gift card". Basically, you buy a gift card for what must be the most popular amount of $50, and the cashier gives you the option to "buy one for $75 and get a $15 gift card for free," or something like that. That's hard to pass up... add a little more $$ and get free money? Sounds good! Except that it's a sham.

Obviously the merchant has the motivation to get your money locked-in to their card. That's red-blooded, all-American capitalism at work, and if you have a problem with that go join the Commies or the Taliban or whoever is the current political bogeyman.

So where's the sham? It's the bonus "gift card" that you get. These things are not gift cards at all. Almost all of them come with restrictions on when you can use them, usually over a week or so in the not-so-distant future. Some have a minimum purchase price, and other restrictions. How's this any different than a coupon you cut from the paper 1, or a sale they would run on that same week?

In my mind a "gift card" is a card that you put money on, and can use whenever you like, just like cash. We consumers are used to this definition, and that's exactly why merchants are using the term "gift card" to deceptively bait us into spending more money. They don't bother to explain the restrictions up front, because they know you'll assume they are the same as the gift card you just bought.

Watch out for this deceptive practice and avoid it. Even better, don't buy store specific gift cards at all. Instead, give "universal" gift certificates -- you know, the ones with little pictures of Andrew Jackson or Ben Franklin.

1 I know, who cuts coupons anymore? You get the picture.