The Fascinating History Behind the Gift Card
Like fine wine, the gift card has only gotten better with age. With its commercial debut as a paper certificate created by big department stores in the 1930s–certificates that were kept behind the counter and sold only at the request of select customers–the gift card has become the biggest selling gift item of all times. This trend has continued over the last five years, with sales in 2009 topping $87 million.
As with anything that witnesses such massive growth, we have to wonder about its origin and evolution. In that spirit we are going to take a trip down gift card memory lane with the following timeline of the gift card’s beginnings and history. We hope you enjoy the journey.
- Edgar Allan Funt — not to be confused with Allan Funt from Candid Camera but a practical joker nonetheless — editor of Candid Horror Writer, a 19th-century syndicated newspaper, wrote a featured column in which unsuspecting individuals were walled up inside a stone mausoleum, buried six feet under or secured in coffins for weeks without food or water, then told afterwards that they had participated in a practical joke and given a $1.50 gift certificate to the local apothecary. (Source: Wikipedia)
- 1930s — Major department stores brought the paper gift certificate to the mass market (Note, we cannot locate the name of the very first department store to do this, and would love your input if you know the answer!)
- 1970 — McDonald’s introduced its Christmas gift certificate program.
- Paper gift certificates were replaced by electronic gift certificates, also known as gift cards, in the mid-1990s. Mobil Oil Company produced the first retail gift certificate with a magnetic strip in 1995. The card, which could be used toward gas fill-ups, was built using technology borrowed from prepaid phone cards.
- Blockbuster is credited with pioneering the modern-day gift card. In 1995 they began displaying their plastic gift cards on counters for customers to buy.
- J.C. Penney created their first gift card for sale in 1996, and they were one of the first retailers to begin creating designs and innovations of the gift card.
- 1997 — Kmart is the first discount retailer to begin selling gift cards. In a partnership with AT&T, the Kmart Cash Card was used as a gift card and also as a phone calling card.
- 1999 — Target joins the mix by beginning to sell gift cards and became the leader in design innovation.
- Gift card sales grew from $19 billion in 1999 to $37 billion in 2002.
- 2001 — Starbucks creates its first gift card, establishing itself as the most successful gift card program in the world.
- Gift card design by retailers becomes all the rage. Home Depot once made a card that doubled as a tape measure, Best Buy created a gift card with built-in headphones and speakers, and last year Target had gift cards that look like toys, as well as “GiftCoins” and a “GiftSticker.”
- Present day — Racks selling gift cards from various retailers are displayed in supermarkets and convenience stores. Shoppers are regularly buying both physical and virtual gift cards online. Consumers can buy gift cards at huge savings and sell gift cards for cash (or other value) on PlasticJungle.com!