Gift cards

Canadians spend more than $1 billion a year on gift cards. Here's how to make sure you and your loved ones get your money's worth

By Mary Vallis
Gift cards

Gift cards

Gotta love gift cards. You can buy them almost anywhere and mail them cheaply to faraway friends and family, who are then guaranteed to get something they actually want. Perfect, right?

Not always. Recently, Canadians clutching gift cards for stores that suddenly went bankrupt, like Linens ’n Things, found themselves out of luck. Others went to redeem their gifts at favourite shops only to learn money had never been loaded onto their cards because of a technical glitch or a dishonest employee at the checkout. And what can you do when a card gets tossed out with the wrapping paper?

While the gift-card business is now regulated by laws in most provinces, there are exceptions (Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador). If you shop smart, however, gift cards still make excellent presents. Just follow these tips:

Think big

Be wary of cards offered by smaller outfits. You may love the spa down the street, but it could shut its doors without warning. Play it safe by sticking to a retailer with a solid, long-standing record of business. It should also be a place your gift getter visits often — the sooner the gift card is “spent,” the faster your gift becomes reality and the less chance your loved one will encounter a hassle.
Have a safety net

When you buy a gift card, keep your receipt; you’ll need it if there is ever a dispute about the value loaded onto the card. And find out if the retailer offers online registration so the card can be replaced if it’s lost or stolen.

Hit the mall

Many shopping centres sell gift cards that the folks on your list can redeem in any store under the roof; for example, Cadillac Fairview cards can be used in any of the company’s 29 vast malls nationwide. That way, your tough-to-buy-for uncle can use his card for both new shoes and a lemon zester. And if one store he likes goes under, there are plenty of others to choose from. Just be advised that some mall cards charge inactivity fees when they’re not used for 16 months or longer, so give them to the frequent shoppers on your list, not the hoarders.

Consider coffee cards

Starbucks and Tim Hortons have locations from coast to coast, their cards never expire, and get this: If your gift recipient registers her Starbucks card online, she also receives two hours of wireless Internet use at any location, free flavour shots, complimentary refills and more.

What’s new?

Gift giving has become just as simple as stocking up on toilet paper, with some supermarkets and drugstores selling an array of preloaded cards for chains like babyGap and La Senza — no need to make a separate trip! You may also be able to redeem your travel miles or gas station points for gift cards.

'Tis better to give

Looking for a feel-good gift card that gives twice? Buy a CanadaHelps charity gift card at, and your recipient can go online to choose which Canadian charity gets the donation. Oxfam Canada cards (from Shoppers Drug Mart stores in some provinces) let your recipient buy donkeys, goats or mosquito nets for families that live overseas.

This article was originally published on Oct 05, 2009

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