Gift Certificates

Written by Jeremy Horelick
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Gift certificates represent the ideal compromise between personalized presents and money. On the one hand, buying appropriate and well-chosen gifts can pose an enormous challenge, especially for those unfamiliar with their recipients' tastes. On the other hand, cash, while certainly functional, can seem cold and even indicate laziness on behalf of the giver.

With a gift certificate, your friends, co-workers, and relatives can choose items they'll use from the stores they love and never have to worry about exchanges. There are no wrong sizes, unflattering shapes, or ill-chosen colors, unless of course the recipient makes them on his or her own, in which case you're absolved of any responsibility. At the same time, a gift certificate shows that you're at least marginally attentive to your recipients' styles and tastes.

Types of Certificates

The most common gift certificates cover goods that everyone can use such as food, entertainment, and clothing. The universality of such products ensures that gift coupons will always occupy a permanent place on the gift landscape, provided that your recipients aren't all reclusive and ascetic nudists. Of course, the better you know your targets the less generic your gifts will be. You can then progress from the essentials (movies, music, apparel) to more carefully selected offerings.

One tip for gift-givers who are unacquainted with their recipients is to stick not only to the broad categories mentioned above, but "safe" brand names within those groups. A certificate to The Gap or J. Crew, for example, is a much better choice than a credit at a vintage shop or boutique. By the same token, even if you yourself are a macrobiotic vegan, you may be better off purchasing a certificate to a well-known steakhouse than a specialty organic foods store.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

If, by contrast, you know your audience well, it's often worth taking a gamble on a more targeted gift certificate. You may have a relative for whom you've shopped for years (and who's shopped for you), not only on birthdays and holidays, but on a regular basis. Over time, you've developed a sense of which gifts have worked and which ones have fizzled. If you noticed that your little nephew's eyes lit up when you gave him his first football, a subsequent gift certificate to a sporting goods store will likely go over gangbusters.

The worst that can happen when choosing taste-based gift certificates is that your recipient will either a) wait for appealing merchandise to hit the store's shelves, or b) "re-gift" the certificate to someone he or she knows. For the most part, however, even the most narrowly focused stores offer something that broader audiences can use. Even bridal shops offer fine jewelry and sushi restaurants feature some cooked food.

Breaking the Mold

For the unconventionally minded, gift certificates are available for more one-of-a-kind products and services that don't readily spring to mind. Many outdoor stores offer gift certificates for wilderness expeditions and other adventures such as white-water trips and skydiving outings. In that same vein, boutiques and spas offer certificates for full-body relaxation therapies and other rejuvenating formulas.

All in all, when selecting the perfect gift certificate, one must juggle several factors at once such as age-appropriateness, amount, convenience, and restrictions. Most retailers will honor certificates for up to at least one year, but others have three- or six-month caps. Don't forget that your recipient may not have the same stores as you do in his or her neck of the woods, which can make your well-intentioned offering virtually useless. You're much better off staying with nationally recognized chains.

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