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What is a Gift Code and Can I Use Gift Codes in Stores?

Ways to successfully use egift cards (or gift card codes) in stores.

savings at Office Max

Definition of a Gift Code

Simply put, a gift code or a gift card code is the primary number on a gift card. For Visa® or Mastercard® gift cards, the code is typically a 16-digit number embossed in raised-lettering on the front of the card–just like you would see on a debit or credit card. For store gift cards such as Starbucks, Macy’s or Home Depot, however, the gift codes vary in length (likely 16 to 25 alphanumeric characters) and they are typically printed on the back of the cards. Do not confuse the gift code or gift card code with the shorter Personal Identification Number (PIN), Card Value Verification (CVV) or other digits printed on the card for security purposes. You do not need a physical plastic card to redeem a gift code.

While it’s easy to think of using gift codes online because you enter the number into a website’s shopping cart or payment system without presenting a physical plastic gift card to anyone, most people do not realize they can sometimes use gift codes in stores as well. In fact, I just saved a bundle on back to school supplies by ordering a discount Office Max gift code, taking a screenshot of the code and PIN on my smartphone and using the image to pay for merchandise at the cashier.

While your experience may vary, below are all the ways I’ve successfully used gift card codes at the store.

How to Use a Gift Code

To be clear, a gift code can exist with or without a plastic gift card. If I have a gift card in my wallet, for example, and want to use it online, I enter the gift card number into a website shopping cart to make a purchase. If accepted, the card balance is reduced by the sale amount–even though I never swiped the actual card. This is an example of using the number from a plastic gift card. However, if you receive a gift code via email, text message, mobile app, social media or other electronic delivery, there is no plastic to swipe. That doesn’t mean you absolutely won’t be able to use the gift code at a physical location, it just means the cashier may have to key-enter the card number at the register just like you would enter it on a website. Below are three ways you might be able to use gift codes in stores:

1. Print and Carry


An easy way to take a gift code to the store is to print the gift code information (including the number, dollar amount and PIN) on your printer. I’ve done this two ways. The first is simply by printing the email that contained the gift card number. The second method I used when I didn’t receive the code itself in the delivery, but had to claim it via a website. After claiming the code online, I used the Snipping Tool to capture a screenshot of the code and send it to my printer. At the store, I handed the printout to the clerk at the cash register to pay for my purchase.

2. Take a Picture

Rather than printing the gift code onto paper, store it as an image on your smartphone or media player. When you get to the cash register, hand your phone to the clerk to key enter the numbers, just like I did at Office Max. When I bought the code, I received an email telling me to claim it online via a link. I clicked that link from my phone’s email application. When the code displayed, I took a screenshot and saved the image to my phone’s camera roll. Before going to the register, I brought the image up on my phone, ready to present to the cashier.

3. Use Mobile Wallet

Easiest of all, download a mobile wallet and enter the gift code into your account. Some wallets will convert the code to what looks like a digital version of a plastic gift card and some will even display a bar code that scanners can read. If the retailer card you have isn’t part of the app, you can still enter the number and PIN for safekeeping and easy payment.

Approaching the Cashier

Gone are the days of asking if customers are paying with “cash, check or charge.” When I handed my phone to the cashier at Office Max, he didn’t even flinch. I’ve found cashiers are increasingly comfortable with multiple forms of payment including the paper print-outs, phone images and mobile apps I’ve used. So don’t be afraid to try a gift code at the store. (Don’t be afraid to send gift codes either! Read my advice on how to send egift cards.)

How I used a Gift Code to Make a Haul

Another tip is to do all of your shopping in one place. I’ve said this before when regaling my discount gift card triumphs (Read Easter Clothes for Less and Smart Saving on Back to School Clothes) and I’ll say it one more time here. Stores often give out additional savings when your purchase reaches a particular threshold. Although I knew that I could buy school supplies at Target and other stores in my area, I found double-digit savings available with the discount Office Max gift code. So rather than shop around for various deals, I bought a gift code for over 100 dollars to a single store. When I made my initial purchase at 90 dollars, the mobile-friendly cashier handed me a 10 dollar coupon off my next purchase of 20 dollars or more. Given that I had a balance of just under 20 dollars, I now had approximately 30 bucks more to spend. We needed printer paper, so I put a box that cost just over that amount in my cart. Had I shopped around for other savings, I would have missed this deal. All told, I saved 18.5 percent using a discount gift code.

Let me know if you experience anything different. I’ve honestly used gift codes quite a bit and have never had a problem. If you have any gift code experiences of your own , I would love to hear about them. Add a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter at @GCGirlfriend.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend

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