Gift Certificates - a Little Boring, but ...

... They're convenient, and for better or worse, people are buying them in droves this year

Here are tidings of great joy this holiday season for those who annually receive neon neckties and other gauche gifts: More than ever before, their presents are likely to be gift certificates.

Thirty-four percent of Yuletide shoppers - the most ever - have put gift certificates on their shopping lists, finds an annual survey by the National Retail Federation in Washington and Deloitte & Touche LLP in New York.

Apparently, consumers are disregarding the stigma of gift certificates as a slap-dash and tactless substitute for a thoughtful and personalized present.

Consequently, the givers and receivers of a gift, as well as the store, all gain. "It's a win-win-win situation," says Ann Woolman of Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Hoffman Estates, Ill. This season, Sears has seen a big jump in demand for the certificates, she says.

Why the certificate boom? It's a mix of traditional reasons and new perks:

*Gift-givers need not trudge through store aisles, endure a long wait at cash registers, and gamble that they're buying an unwanted item. Many stores have recently begun allowing customers to purchase gift certificates at cash registers instead of just at service counters. Still others sell the certificates by phone.

*Some firms issue certificates that look like credit cards, with values of $5, $10, or $25. When a purchase is made, the price is automatically deducted from the card.

*Many stores will personalize certificates with the recipient's name and present it in a box with fancy wrapping.

*Certificates are easily mailed. Gift-receivers may select the merchandise themselves and avoid the hassle of returning an awkward present.

For stores, gift certificates reduce the costs of accepting returned goods.

And often, stores end up selling a more expensive item than the one the gift giver would have purchased. The holder of a gift certificate often uses it toward buying an "aspirational" good that would otherwise be beyond his or her budget, retailers say.

"Purchases made using gift certificates are one to two steps higher in price than normal purchases," says Ms. Woolman at Sears. The department store chain has especially promoted its Craftsman tools and hardware gift certificate, which can also be used at other Sears departments.

Although popular across the retailing spectrum, gift certificates have not caught on as fast among discount stores. "The stores don't have the same cachet as a major department store," says Pamela Rucker of the National Retail Federation.

Not every store aggressively promotes certificates. Marshall Field's instead touts its "gift receipts," slips that a gift holder can use to exchange the merchandise. A code on the receipt hides the the price from the gift holder but identifies it for a sales clerk.

The bottom line, says Lynne Galia of Marshall Field's, is that "people want to make sure they get the right gift in the right size and the right color."

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