Scrambling to come up with the perfect gift for those last few tricky people on your list?
With less than a week to go till Christmas, skipping mall shopping and opting for a gift card may seem like the best approach. But landing on just the right card for your recipient requires a fair bit of strategy too. After all, it's important to give a gift card that people will actually use and enjoy.
Money consulted the experts from gift card exchange marketplaces and WalletHub to find out what are the best gift cards for holiday shoppers to buy.
Best Gift Cards to Give
If you define "best" as most popular, there's a clear best gift card for 2017: Amazon. The online retailer's card has been a clear favorite for several years, according to Wallethub's rankings, which focus on online searches—and unlike Visa, which ties with it in popularity, it doesn't carry any extra fees. (More on those in a minute.)
"The Amazon gift card is projected to be most popular this year, tied for first place with the Visa gift card," says WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez. "These two gift cards' popularity has been steadily increasing over the years, proving that consumers want cards that can be exchanged for a larger variety of items."
WalletHub's full list of most popular gift cards leads off with:
- Amazon Gift Card: No. 1 (tie)
- Visa Gift Card: No. 1 (tie)
- Walmart Gift Card
- iTunes Gift Card: No. 4 (tie)
- American Express Gift Card: No. 4 (tie)
- Target Gift Card: No. 6 (tie)
- Starbucks Gift Card: No. 6 (tie)
- Disney Gift Card: No. 8
- Sephora Gift Card: No. 9
- eBay Gift Card: No. 10
The most popular cards typically become favorites for one of two reasons, says Mark Romanelli, executive vice president of product for Gift Card Granny, a gift-card comparison and exchange website.
In many of the cases, he says, they come from a massive brand that carries a wide breadth of products—from groceries to electronics—at affordable prices, as is the case with Walmart gift cards and Target gift cards. The other group tends to be more specialized brands that people visit when making larger purchases—like a Home Depot gift card, for home improvement, or Best Buy gift card, for major appliances.
Best Gift Cards Without Hidden Fees
One big problem with many gift cards: hidden fees. Two of the most popular gift cards, the Visa gift card and American Express gift card—ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, by WalletHub—come with hefty fees.
Visa gift cards, American Express gift cards, Mastercard gift cards, and Discover gift cards aren't attached to any specific retailer—you can use them anywhere, and that is what makes them so popular. But these so-called network gift cards charge the buyer a fee for that convenience—$3.95 at minimum, says WalletHub. And Romanelli says to expect higher costs: $4.95 for cards $100 or less, $5.95 for cards between $101 and $500, and between $6-$7 for cards above that. It's almost impossible to purchase ultra-popular Visa gift cards with no fee, for instance.
Recipients could wind up paying also: If they don't use their gift cards for 12 consecutive months, they could also face a $2.50 monthly inactivity fee, deducted automatically from the card's balance.
If you want the flexibility of letting your loved one spend your gift wherever they want, it's better stick with cash. But if that doesn't fit the bill, a better option is to use the no-fee gift cards offered by most retailers.
Two surprisingly popular options: grocery store gift cards and gas station gift cards. While these cards may not seem like typical Christmas gifts, experts note that they are the least likely to either go unused or be offered for resale.
Romanelli says grocery gift cards are some of the most popular and fastest-moving cards on the gift card exchanges. And several grocery cards landed in WalletHub's top 20:
- Costco gift cards: No. 11
- Giant Eagle gift cards: No. 17
- Kroger gift cards: No. 20
Gas cards are also in high demand, says Romanelli: Because they get resold so rarely, they are the quickest cards to sell on the gift exchanges. Of the 10 brands that offer the highest resale value, half are gas companies, Gift Card Granny found.
New Gift Card Trends
Gift card resale markets have shown some clear shifts this year, say the experts.
Apple Store gift cards and H&M gift cards have suffered the biggest drop in popularity this year, says WalletHub's Gonzalez. "Consumers are looking for gift cards that can get them more of a variety of necessities on the cheap, versus specific retailer frills," she adds.
Department stores have also fared poorly. Romanelli notes that Gift Card Granny has seen big drop offs in demand for Sears and JCPenney gift cards.
One "most improved" winner: Trader Joe's gift cards have seen the biggest surge in popularity in the past year, according to WalletHub.
Finally, if you want to get your loved one a gift card for something less tangible, you now have more options. Giftcard.com's Shelley Hunter says experiential gift cards have been growing in demand, with Groupon, SpaFinder, and Paint Nite leading the way.
Your friends and family "get to choose the experience they want," she says—"and it don't cost you a premium."