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What’s All the Fuss About Flat Gift Cards?

Does anything really change when you move from embossed characters to printed characters on a Visa gift card?

collection of gift cards that are flat and embossed

Making the Switch changed the way they printed gift cards. This was done for a variety of reasons, most of which customers will not even notice, but there will be one difference that stands out. (Or actually doesn’t stand out at all.)

With the old printing process, the name, greeting and gift card number were embossed onto the plastic. The new ways is to simply print these elements on the card. With the old printer, the lettering is raised in relief against the background of the card. With the new printer, the lettering is flat.

Embossed Versus Printed

When I first heard that they were dropping the embossed lettering in favor of flat printing, I was a little concerned. I sorta like the touch and feel of those bumpy characters across the plastic and I like using them to add words that make the gift card more personal. Rather than complain, however, I decided to compare the two styles to see if I could embrace the new cards. Here is what I discovered.

Image Stands Out More

While I’m sure there is a design principle that would better describe this, the first thing I noticed on the flat gift card is that my eye rests where it belongs–on the image rather than on the numbers. With the embossed card, my eye moves from the image to the silver digits and back which feels unsettling. This is interesting to me because when I create personalized gift cards, I always make an extra effort to be sure the number line doesn’t run across someone’s face or make it hard to see the detail of the image below. With the flat embossed card, the numbers are visible but they don’t take center stage.

comparing a flat and embossed gift card

Card Feels Thinner

Although I’ve been assured by the technicians that the physical plastic is identical in terms of size, weight and composition, the flat card feels thinner. I think it’s because the embossing line gives the plastic a bit of rigidity, and technically the card actually is taller because the embossed characters are raised up from the plastic. However, the sleeker card goes into my wallet easier because it slides into the pocket without the friction the embossed letters sometimes produce.

flat and embossed gift cards

More Like Store Gift Cards

Store and restaurant gift cards have always been flat with designs on front and pertinent payment information on back. Visa gift cards, on the other hand, typically have embossed numbers on the front because they were modeled after Visa credit cards. For both types of cards, the payment information needed to complete a transaction is coded into the magnetic stripe on the back of the card. If the card is to be used manually (e.g. make a payment online or over the telephone), the holder of the card simply needs to read the gift card number, expiration date (if applicable) and personal identification number (PIN) associated with the card. It doesn’t matter if those digits are printed on the front of the gift card or the back as long as they can be read.

Credit Cards are Going Flat Too

example of old card and new card with flat embossing

Interestingly enough, many credit card companies are now also sending un-embossed cards. Without getting too History Channel on you, credit cards used to be processed manually with a card imprinting device nicknamed a “knuckle-buster.” I’ve also seen it referred to as a “zip-zap machine” and a “ca-ching thing.” Regardless of what it’s called, cashiers used it to quickly capture a physical imprint of the embossed numbers on the credit card. Despite being commonplace a decade or more ago, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a credit card processed this way. Even small mom and pop stores accept credit cards via the swipe (and now EMV Chip) or run cards through apps on their phones. With so many ways to run a credit card digitally, manual transactions are becoming obsolete. In fact, merchants are often charged a higher per-transaction fee if they accept manual payment because doing so increases the possibility of fraud and customer chargebacks.

Though I’m told that some merchants still keep manual card imprinting machines on hand so they can accept payment if the power goes down, I wonder if it is worth paying the increased cost of embossing cards and the higher transaction fees associated with accepting them for an event that rarely happens. Plus, it’s not like you can’t accept flat gift cards manually. The cashier would just have to write the card number down versus zip-zapping it.

Flat is Where It’s At

I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m good with the flat gift cards. They cost less for the company and consumers don’t really have to give up anything in return. As people become more accustomed to using printed gift cards perhaps they won’t be wary of flat credit cards either. When you consider that we are moving toward mobile payment anyway, worrying what plastic should look like probably isn’t necessary.

What do you think? Have you ever received a flat Visa, Mastercard, Discover or American Express card? Did the flat plastic bother you? Let me know in the comments below or leave a message for @GCGirlfriend on Twitter. I’d love to hear what you think.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend

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