Monday, September 22, 2008

Gift Cards - the battlecry of consumerism

This weekend Dena and I finally used a gift card we were given about four years ago. Yes, that's right, 4 years. We received it from the tile/bath store called Waterworks as a thank you for buying $ 1000's of dollars worth of tile from them. It was for $ 50. I find gift cards both a blessing and a curse. They truly embody the American obsession with consumerism. Consumerism is the equation of personal happiness with the purchase of material possessions and consumption.

We used the Waterworks gift card in the true spirit of why gift cards were invented by retailers. Buy stuff you probably don't need. We bought soaps and a sachet for ~ $ 55.00. So, the theory bears true. I have a card for $ 50. What I want to buy is either a few dollars less or more than that. If I buy something > $ 50 then the retailer gets additional cash from me and someone who might not have come into the store at all has just spent money. If I buy < $ 50 then the remaining balance on the card just sits there and my gift giver has effectively made a donation to the retailer. Both not positive for the consumer but all good for the retailer.

At least in California there are now laws protecting consumers a little. A gift card can never expire, a retailer cannot charge a few for you to use it or keep it and now if there is < $10 on the card they MUST give you that back in cash. I love cash. If there is a small amount left over on the card retailers are allowed to start drawing down the money once a card is left with less than five dollars and unused for two years. The reason why Dena and I did not suffer this fate and have a card worth nothing is that they cannot do it on an unused card. So if you have a $ 200 Best Buy gift card. You go into the store and end up using the card for only a DVD. You've just triggered the fee cycle. If you forget about the card and discover it two years later the retailer will have been allowed to deduct fees and who knows how much you may have left. So be careful.

Oh, and by the way, these rules do not apply to Visa, Mastercard and American Express bank issued gift cards.....they can do anything they want regarding fees, etc. Surprised? I would hope you are not.

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