Gift cards have> always been an unhappy medium: more thoughtful than cash, less thoughtful than an actual gift. But with recent changes to the laws governing these products, restricting fees and expiration dates, gift cards are about to become less thoughtful than ever.
How is giving consumers more time to use a gift and stopping companies from nickel-and-diming them in the meantime bad for consumers? Because the real problem with gift cards isn t that you have too little time to redeem them it s that you have too much.
Last year, Americans spent $92 billion on gift cards, according to TowerGroup, a research firm owned by MasterCard Worldwide. According to Nielsen, they re the No. 1 product consumers expect to spend more on this Christmas than last. But of the $92 billion spent last year, $6 billion was lost to fees and expiration dates and simple failure to use the cards, according to Tower.
Thus, in one of the lesser-known provisions of this May s Credit Card Act, Congress put new restrictions on gift cards issued by banks and credit-card companies. Among other changes, the act banned expiration dates sooner than five years after a card is purchased and disallowed fees on cards that have been dormant for fewer than 12 months. The new regulations don t take effect until next summer, but some companies, such as American Express (AXP),
While these are intended as pro-consumer reforms, they re based on a misunderstanding of the real problem with gift cards: You lose money on them not primarily because of fees or expiration dates, but because you throw them in a drawer and forget about them. Or, you lose them, or you hold on to them indefinitely always thinking you ll redeem them tomorrow.
It s counterintuitive, but the way to make people more likely to redeem their gift cards would be to shorten the time before they expired.
Take an experiment conducted by two marketing professors, Suzanne Shu and Ayelet Gneezy, set to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research (and written up in the May Atlantic by Virginia Postrel). Shu and Gneezy gave 64 undergraduates coupons for a slice of cake and a beverage at a local French pastry shop. Half got a certificate that expired in three weeks, half got one that expired in two months. While students were sure they were more likely to use the certificate with the more generous timeframe, the results were clear: The shorter timeframe made the students much more likely to redeem their certificates; 10 of the 32 students (31%) redeemed the three-week certificates, only two of the 32 students (6%) redeemed the two-month certificates.
What s more, the students who failed to use their certificates were plagued with regret. The most common reasons they gave for not using the certificates: I was too busy and ran out of time and I kept thinking I could do it later.
These results match up with other data Shu and Gneezy collected. For instance, they found that tourists with limited time were more likely to see the sights in a city than that city s residents. The residents didn t get out to do the tourist stuff until they were about to move away. Similarly, people weren t motivated to go see a museum exhibit until it was about to close following a very similar pattern to how people procrastinate when it comes to signing up for the company health plan.
The lesson is clear: We procrastinate not just when it comes to unpleasant experiences, but when it comes to pleasant experiences as well. We re always too busy. We always think there s more time until there s not.
The best-designed gift card would give you a craftily short timeframe: enough time to get to the store, but not enough time to shove it in your dresser drawer. Say, somewhere between one to three months. The problem is that people don t know their own minds well enough to appreciate such a scheme. Consumers are much more satisfied when they see a luxurious timeframe stretched out before them.
Thus, the trend toward longer expiration dates and fewer fees is a great deal for stores and credit-card companies. People will feel more satisfied with the cards, while being less likely to redeem them. Win-win.
Consumers, though, if they re not giving real presents or cash, should look for products that nudge the recipient to indulge.
Ideally, a gift card should even let the funds revert to the giver if the recipient doesn t cash it in. In fact, such a product already exists though you won t find it on offer at any store. It s called a check. Ask your grandma.
Ryan Sager writes the blog Neuroworld at TrueSlant.com.>