A Look Back At The Origin Of Gift Cards

Sure, we at Consumerist may try to steer people away from gift cards, but they remain the most popular holiday gift. But where did they come from? How did the gift card evolve from its less versatile ancestor, the gift certificate? The Big Money has a retrospective.

The first magnetic-stripe gift cards were issued by Mobil for gasoline purchases, and the first retail counter gift cards came from Blockbuster Video. Oh, and there are people who collect gift cards, which should come as a surprise to no one.

A Brief History of the Gift Card [The Big Money]


Edit Your Comment

  1. FatLynn says:

    Remember gift certificates? Those were even worse…at least if you were the one behind the counter.

    • yungjerry703 says:

      lol i would buy the cheapest thing so i could get the most cash back.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      I long for the days of paper gift certificates because a lot of them didn’t expire, they didn’t cost you money to get, you usually got an envelope that went with it and last but not least the issuing company could not auto deduct fees from it – in other words, what you paid for is what you got.

    • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

      Turtle’s Records and Tapes used to do gift coins. Metal coins. About twice the size of a fiddy cent piece. Which were cool for the recipient, but not for the manager that had to haul them to the back by the sackful at the end of the day. >_

  2. Red Cat Linux says:

    I actually welcomed the arrival of the Gift Card in many stores.

    Prior to this, one had to get a gift certificate for that particular store. Every last one of these stores only allowed a manager to sell/create a gift certificate. You know what it’s like trying to find a manager to write up a gift certificate? 15-30 minute ordeal, easy – everytime.

    And every time I got one, I felt like I was caught in a time loop back to 1985. And they normally were only good for one year.

    I know there has been recent scorn heaped on gift card fees, but I’ve never had one that lost value or expired. I only recently pulled a battle scarred two-year old Best Buy card out of my purse and use the last of it’s value on a gift.

    • brianguyy says:

      oh yeah the amount — I completely forgot about that. I think where I worked we only sold preprinted ones for predetermined amount. they kinda looked like Monopoly money, or Disneyland tickets for anyone who isn’t familiar with the olden days (pre-2000s).

      but then, I don’t know how anyone would what a Disneyland E-ticket looks like if you weren’t around before the 90’s. so that’s probably no help!

      • Blueskylaw says:

        I still have my multi-day pass from Disneyworld when I went there in 1982, along the way there we also stopped by the Tennessee World’s fair.

      • Red Cat Linux says:

        The kids thought I was joking when I would call something “an E-ticket ride”. After I got questions about what Etickets were and explained it, they thought I was loopy. Now of course, you use a plastic park card for everything and no longer have to budget your ticket books.

        But last time there, I found a nostalgic Disney trading pin that is a miniature of a circa 1980 ticket book. The kids were only mildly shocked at how ancient the idea seemed.

    • venomroses says:

      Today, i also used a 6 year old best buy gift card for someone elses gift.

      I LOVE gift cards and I don’t understand why everyone hates them.

  3. Bix says:

    Years ago, my sister got a bunch of Simon Mall gift certificates. You got change in cash after the first use, so if you really wanted to, you could buy a pack of gum and get the rest in cash.

    • redskull says:

      Food stamps used to work that way too. I worked in a grocery store and people would come in with a $20 food stamp, buy some gum (which was covered under food stamps for some reason), get $19.50 in real money change, then use that to buy cigarettes (which were not covered under food stamps). Eventually the government caught on to this and made stores give change in food stamps, but it took them a ridiculous amount of time to do so.

    • brianguyy says:

      companies stopped doing this about ten years ago it seems like. usually has to be $10 before they’ll give you the difference in cash. some still won’t.

      also, Simon (and others) charge a monthly fee without telling you. so in no time, your card balance could easily be $0 without you even using it!

  4. Rectilinear Propagation says:

    I’d read it but it’s split over 12 pages and I already did that with the horrible gift post.

  5. Magspie says:

    Back in high school and college my dad used to give me gift certificates to nice places to try and make me dress preppier. I bought a $30 shirt at Abercrombie and Fitch and got $170 back in cash. I miss gift certificates.

    • shepd says:

      Same thing still happens, just a little differently. You take the unwanted card and then sell it on ebay for 90-95% of face value (free shipping, of course), or perhaps on kijiji if you don’t care that the person who gave it to you finds out.

  6. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    I don’t get why people give a gift card, or certificate, instead of cash. Ever.

    • kuhjäger says:

      Well if it is for an online retailer, and the person doesn’t have a credit card because they are too young ETC.

      I recommend them for people who are buying something from my company that don’t really know what the person wants. Our company deals in a niche technical area, and people are better off just letting the person get it themselves.

    • redskull says:

      Because if you give some people cash they’ll use it at the laundrymat or something mundane like that, instead of buying an actual gift for themselves.

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        …maybe it’s more important that they have money to do laundry than to have a new veg-o-matic?

      • wcnghj says:

        Isn’t paying somebodys bills a nice gift? What is somebody is unemployed and would rather pay their mortgage than get something at walmart?

        • YouDidWhatNow? says:

          dude, if you wanted to pay some of my bills, you would totally be my new bff

        • tbax929 says:

          If I were giving a gift to someone I know was having trouble paying the bills, that’d be fine. Most people on my gift list aren’t in that category. I’m the friend who’s unemployed (for another week or so until I start my new gig).

          My point is that when you want to give someone a gift, getting them a card for a place you know they like is a perfectly fine way to ensure they’ll actually get more out of the gift than just a tank of gas or whatever else they’d spend the cash on.

        • nybiker says:


    • Rectilinear Propagation says:

      Well, it’s easier to mail a gift card and, unlike a check, you don’t have to go to the bank to deposit or cash it first. I also read in another gift card thread that some people would like to know that the person spent the money on something fun.

      I remember in grade school (middle I think) the teacher had us do a gift exchange thing. We were all supposed to bring gifts and then everybody could pick a wrapped gift with only an indication of which gender it’s for on the outside. I had to leave the classroom for something and by the time I got back every single gift had been picked except for mine.

      No one picked mine because it was just an envelope so I ended up keeping it. I didn’t care because it was a holiday card with cash in it. (I had wanted to get something but was clueless about what to get and my parents said cash would work.)

    • RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

      Or perhaps you have a friend who has a complicated hobby or pastime, and you’d like to get him or her something that relates to it, but you have no idea what the may already have, or indeed, anything about that hobby to begin with. Buy buying a gift card to their favorite hobby related store, it shows that you keep up with their interests, even if you don’t really know what to get them.

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        …a card with a note saying “hey, I know you love r/c airplanes, but I had no idea what to get you – here’s $50, please get yerself a new r/c doohickey on me”

        …and then they don’t have to deal with any of the wonky gift cardiness that’s been reported on this site many times.

    • brianguyy says:

      they make great stocking stuffers. or when you need to give something to your employees, and can’t be bothered to wrap or shlep an actual gift around.

      actual gift buying for loved ones is hard enough. why subject people to gift buying of token gifts they’ll probably hate, for non-loved ones? let them pick their own gift at a store of your choosing.

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        …cash fits in a stocking too. Not sure how anything is materially changed by converting your cash into a card or cert.

        • jamar0303 says:

          Other than being usable in places where cash isn’t. An iTunes Japan gift card helps me set up an iTunes Japan account. Cash doesn’t. A WebMoney voucher helps me get a premium member account at my favorite video-sharing site. Cash doesn’t and neither does a non-Japan-issued CC/debit card.

    • tbax929 says:

      I do it for two reasons. First, if I give cash to most people I know, they’ll spend it on bills, which is fine but not the intent of my giving a gift. Secondly, I give gift cards to restaurants I know people actually eat at; I think it shows that I pay attention to their likes.

      • YouDidWhatNow? says:

        …it might mean more to that someone that they had help paying their heating bill in the middle of winter…

    • Squeezer says:

      cs w’r nt ll frggn’ jws lk y.

  7. kuhjäger says:

    I remember when Gift Cards took effort as well. You actually had to go to the store that they were for, and purchase them.

    Now you just go to the grocery store and pick one from the dozens that they have already there in one end cap and your holiday shopping is done.

  8. RecordStoreToughGuy_RidesTheWarpOfSpaceIntoTheWombOfNight says:

    I prefer gift cards. If I get cash, I’m tempted to put it in the bank, or put gas in my car, or use it in an otherwise responsible fashion. A gift card makes me go buy something fun, without the buyer’s remorse. Of course, I usually spend them as soon as I can, so I’ve never had to worry about inactivity fees, although I do agree those are bullshit.

    • Alter_ego says:

      Yeah, my grandma gives me cash every year, and I always use it to help pay off the credit card from buying everyone elses gift that year. So really, my grandma us just buying some of my relatives an extra gift, through me.

    • YouDidWhatNow? says:

      …I’m not clear on how “using it in a responsible fashion” is a bad thing.

      If someone’s finances are all peachy, they’ll use gifted money for a gift of some kind. If they actually need the money to pay the gas bill, that’s probably infinitely more important than a gift would have been.

  9. brianguyy says:

    when I was in high school (early 90s) I worked at a small movie chain and we sold gift certificates. man, I hated those. two reasons, 1) they were locked up in the manager’s office and 2) had to be accounted for outside of our (relatively) primitive computer system. we didn’t even take credit cards.

    I went to this one sushi joint 5 years ago to buy a gift card for someone and they wrote me out a certificate for the amount ($75), and the manager signed it. not very official or snazzy looking.. I guess non-chain restaurants still have little choice but to issue actual script in many cases.

  10. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    If only gift cards were more interesting looking! For example, if they were 3-dimensional and came in the shapes of various polyhedra, maybe with glitter on them and you could use them as ornaments and THEN unfold them into flat sheets and spend them. Then they’d be a lot more fun both to give and receive.

    • Syncop8d1 says:

      Now *there’s* an idea! You should hurry up and start designing those before someone else does. And things are always better with glitter :-)

    • Arctic Snowbot says:

      Last year, my 30 year old friend who is stuck in the 80’s (He-man, rainbow brite, etc..) wanted Becks newest CD. her husband wasn’t sure if anyone else bought it for her, so I went to best buy and what did I find? A slap bracelet that was an actual gift card! Amazing, right? I was as excited to give it as she was when she recieved it. So there are cool and exciting gift cards out there. One time my uncle gave me a gift card with a menorah on it. One: I’m catholic, two: it was for my birthday. It wasn’t exciting or glittery, but it made me laugh and that’s what he was going for. Mission accomplished. Way better than money.

  11. kooly says:

    I think gift cards are good for non-tangible gifts like Lift Tickets for skiing or Spa trips, but not for retail.

  12. treimel says:

    Putting aside all the obvious disadvnatages like fees and expiration dates, I’ve never understood the point of gift cards, gift certificates and the like. To me, they have all the lack of thought that goes with cash, with none of cash’s flexibility.

  13. eviltwinskippie says:

    Actually, the one gift card I buy every year without fail is the card from Exxon. I don’t want to give my teenage kids cash nor a gas credit card, but doled out gift cards to buy gas for their cars? I’m all over that.

  14. pdxazn says:

    Gift takes away other people’s freedom to choose. What you like don’t mean what I like. Most often, you end up with bunch of white elephant.

    Gift card restricts you to a particular store or it comes with all kind of fees that will reduce to nothing if you forgot to use it right away.

    Be smart like the Chinese, they have been giving money in a red pocket for hundreds of years. Who don’t like real money?

  15. ModernTenshi04 says:

    Gift cards are now becoming something to use to buy things instead of just gifts.

    With Giant Eagle, if you buy a $50 gift card, you get 20 cents off your next fuel purchase at their gas stations.

    I have friends that will go there to pick up two or three when they want to get some new movies and/or games, so they get what they want, and save 60 cents per gallon on their next fuel up.

    Hell, a friend who split the cost of his new HDTV with his parents for Christmas did one better. They paid for the TV with his parent’s credit card (he gave them his share in cash) since it was the last day of the sale, then went to Giant Eagle, got the exact amount in gift cards, and had them redo the order to put the money back on the credit card and pay with gift cards instead.

    I keep forgetting to do it myself. I could have saved 60 cents per gallon just shopping at Best Buy on Black Friday alone.

  16. DigitalShaman says:

    Gift cards. It says the giver lives near a grocery store and is basically sending you on an errand to buy your own gift.