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Gift Cards with a Personal Touch


Visa, its sights set on grabbing a bigger piece of the booming $90 billion market for gift cards, is launching a service to let consumers personalize cards with photos and engraved messages.

Beginning on Nov. 15, users will be able to design their own Visa gift card by visiting GiftCardLab.com. There they can upload personal pictures or use stock images pulled off the site. The cards cost $5.95 apiece and can be loaded with $10 to $250 of value. The site accepts all major credit cards and debit cards as payment. Cards are mailed to the buyer or directly to the recipient.

Visa's new cards represent the latest attempt to win back some of the billions that have been siphoned off from the traditional credit-card business. All the major card companies--American Express (AXP), Visa, MasterCard (MA), and Discover (DFS)--already sell gift cards of some kind. And no wonder: Spending on gift cards has grown at a 20% annualized rate since 2005, compared with about 7% for credit cards. More than 75% of all consumers are expected to receive at least one gift card this year, analysts say. The overwhelming share of that, however, goes to cards issued by stores, restaurants, and other such businesses.

The customized Visa cards are a new twist on an old strategy. Since 2005 customers have been able to pay 88 cents to upload a digital photo on Wal-Mart's Web site or have one imprinted on a store gift card at a store. Another site, Cardways.com, charges $4.50 plus delivery fees for consumers to personalize gift cards from the likes of retailer Circuit City Stores (CC) and music service Napster (NAPS). And American Express, which boasts the fastest-growing prepaid bank-card business, recently expanded its offerings by letting businesses print customizable messages on batches of up to 1,400 cards.

Gift cards are a great deal for the companies that issue them. For one thing, recipients never get around to fully redeeming about $8 billion of card value each year, says research firm Tower Group. And some cards carry hidden fees, including ones that penalize holders for not using them right away.

Visa, like the other credit-card companies, will collect a transaction fee again and again on the gift cards, until the value is exhausted. Visitors to the GiftCardLab.com site are told that the issuer, Marshall BankFirst, will deactivate them one year from their print date and charge an "account closure fee" before returning the balance in about three months. Such fees have drawn loud cries from public interest groups.

By Cliff Edwards


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