– The amazing growth of gift card rewards –
Recalling my days working for a leading customer loyalty program, I remember the remarkable growth of program members exchanging their points for gift cards. This growth was remarkable for different reasons. First, it was a travel program where the majority of members accumulated their points for airline tickets. This travel orientation meant that members were accustomed to saving-up their points for long periods of time. Moreover, before the program introduced gift cards to its catalog, it added merchandise and experiences. This meant that members had a wide range of choices – everything from plasma tv’s to show tickets to VIP events. Despite all these options, gift cards quickly grew to become the most popular non-travel reward.
Looking back, I now realize that the popularity of gift cards as a reward option had a lot to do with their flexibility and their faster attainability compared to the more aspirational, less attainable travel rewards.
But, my previous company isn’t alone. The entire incentives industry has seen the same trend in the past decade. In fact, the Incentives Research Foundation states that in 2012 gift cards had become the most popular gift among consumers shopping for friends and relatives and the tool of choice for businesses hoping to motivate employees, customers, and partners.
Gift cards: the preferred employee incentive reward
When it comes to motivating employees, gift cards are now undeniably the preferred non-cash reward option and used by 75% of businesses. Use of gift cards in employee rewards and recognition programs has even exceeded travel, merchandise, and cash rewards according to the October 2011 October 2011 report “State of Gift Card Use in the U.S.” by the Incentive Research Foundation. According to the IRF’s research, consumers have embraced gift cards because they make gift-giving “easy” and “reduce shopping time”. This convenience factor has no doubt also influenced people’s warm reception of gift cards as incentives in the workplace.
Incentive program managers and planners also prefer using gift cards as incentives because they are easier to administer, are more flexible and personal, and are popular amongst company staff. Above all, incentive planners view gift cards as the “most effective” reward option that offers the best overall return on investment, even compared to cash.
Similar to the IRF’s findings, we believe the effectiveness of gift cards over other non-cash and cash rewards is largely due to the unique combination of flexibility and “trophy value”. For example, if you offer your staff a catalog of merchandise, you’ll achieve high trophy value but low flexibility as staff may aspire to have some of the items you offer, but won’t necessarily find something appealing at any given time. In contrast, cash rewards offer high flexibility but low trophy value. The following quote from Mike Ryan, President Emeritus of The Performance Improvement Council, in the IRF report highlights this perfectly:
“A responsible person who receives cash as a reward may not feel comfortable about spending it on themselves, so it is not exciting for them. A $25 gift card is better than $25 cash because it gives them license to spend on themselves and this makes it appealing.”
Gift cards seem to strike that perfect middle ground – by offering a selection of well-known brands, as well as “open” prepaid cards from Visa, MasterCard, or American Express, your employees will find both trophy value and flexibility.
Compared to merchandise and travel, gift cards also dramatically reduce the administrative costs and burden associated with employee incentive programs. Ever shipped a tv across the continental US? It’s not cheap. Not to mention that merchandise programs require frequent catalog refreshes to maintain employee interest and tend to have higher customer servicing requirements (with staff calling to find out when their rewards are going to be delivered).
Digital revolution: the rise of e-gift cards
With the rise of mobile and digital payments, it’s not surprising that gift cards too are increasingly offered electronically. “E-gift cards” are similar to their plastic equivalents in that they can often be used in-store (printed or with a barcode displayed on your phone) or used to pay for purchases online (by either entering a PIN or redemption code). Moreover, Millennials prefer e-gift cards because, unlike physical cards, they can’t be “lost” and don’t need to be remembered before going shopping.
Plus with the growth of online retailers like Amazon as well as the online offerings of bricks-and-mortar retailers like Best Buy and Walmart, the number of possible ‘reward options’ is nearly infinite. Why manage a merchandise catalog with hundreds of items, when these online retailers have tens of thousands? And to offer their catalogs as rewards to your employees all you have to do is provide their e-gift cards as rewards in your employee incentive program.
Beyond the flexibility and choice provided by e-gift cards, I believe they will quickly overtake physical gift cards in the coming years as the most popular employee incentive reward due to their simplicity. Incentive program managers and planners will love them too – from the low cost of fulfillment to the instant gratification they provide (e-gift cards can be emailed or received instantly upon redemption), they help simplify and, at the same time, expand the utility of incentives.