- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

Prepaid gift cards are growing in popularity as more businesses use the plastic to replace traditional paper gift certificates. Companies offering the credit-card sized plastic pieces run the gamut from Macy's, Pier One Imports and Barnes & Noble to Starbucks, Marriott International and Boston Market.
The Golden, Colo., restaurant chain is the latest company to offer the plastic prepaid cards as an alternative to gift certificates. The company started selling its festive-designed cards Nov. 1 and will introduce a non-holiday-themed card in early January.
"We wanted to do something new and different," said Phyllis Hammond, senior vice president of communications. "We wanted to make it easier for people to share Boston Market with their friends and family."
Retailers say the convenience of plastic cards, which deduct the cost of each purchase like a debit card, are the biggest draw for consumers.
"With scanner technology and slide-card technology, gift cards are a lot easier to handle," said Shawn Underwood, spokesman for Petco, the San Diego-based chain of pet stores.
Petco started selling gift cards in December 2001 and expects an uptick in those sales this holiday season.
"We always get an influx of customers that may not be pet owners," said Mr. Underwood, adding that often those customers don't know what toys a pet has or wants so a gift card is a good alternative.
Retailers aren't the only ones selling gift cards.
American Express, Visa International and MasterCard have their own prepaid cards with much of the same benefits of a credit card minus the monthly bill.
With the popularity of retailers' prepaid cards and the success of its paper gift cheques, American Express introduced its own gift card in October, said spokeswoman Christine Elliott.
The cards, which come in denominations of $25 to $500, can be used anywhere that accepts American Express credit cards. Ms. Elliott says the cards, which can only be purchased online, are "off to a strong start."
Marriott International started offering $50 and $100 cards in November 2001 after customers said they were convenient. The Bethesda-based hotelier sells the cards online, at participating hotels and started offering them at Safeway stores around the country in August. The cards, unlike many, cannot be replenished when the balance hits zero.
The holiday season is expected to be a busy time for Marriott GiftCards. Last year, about 70 percent were bought during the holidays, said Leigh Anne Ambrose, director of marketing for Marriott GiftCards and gift certificates.
This year, Marriott is pushing its card with a limited-time promotion that gives purchasers a $25 bonus coupon toward a two-night stay at a Marriott brand hotel within the next six months. The promotion is only available online and when the cards are bought with a Visa credit card.
Despite all the latest gadgets, clothes and toys available, those easy stocking stuffers gift certificates and cash are still at the top of many people's wish lists this season.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans want to give and receive gift certificates or cash this season, according to the 2002 American Express Retail Index.
"[Gift cards] are one of our top sellers for the holidays," said Donna Beadle, a Best Buy spokeswoman.
This is the sixth year the electronics superstore has sold the gift cards. Best Buy changes the design of its plastic cards each year. This year, three holiday-themed cards are shaped like a price tag and about the same size as a credit card.
Two of the designs change images when the cards are moved: Earmuffs turn into headphones, and a snowball turns into a CD. A third image is a tangled ball of Christmas lights. The company is putting the cards in a CD case, in addition to its normal "to/from" packaging, Mrs. Beadle said.
Boston Market officials hope their new gift cards eventually will replace the traditional gift certificates. So far the cards are selling at 1 times the rate of the gift certificates, Ms. Hammond said.
"It's more convenient to have this card than a piece of paper," she said.


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