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Why Are There So Many Different Types of Gift Cards? (And Which is Best?)

From single store gift cards to bank-issued gift cards (and every gift card in between), understanding how the different types of gift cards work will help you pick the best one every time.

graph showing different types of gift cards

Introduction

For the past two years, I have been writing, filming, talking, and thinking about a new type of gift card on the market. Though they go by various brand names (e.g. Happy Cards, Giving Good®, Holiday Favorites, The Choice Card, and so forth), these cards are generally referred to as “multi-store,” “multi-merchant” or “multi-brand” gift cards because each one is usable at any of the stores or restaurants listed on the card.

But are they actually new gift cards and do they truly add value to consumers—or is this just another way for gift card issuers to package up the same branded gift cards we already buy?

In the blog post below, I’ll share a brief history of multi-store gift cards plus my thoughts on how they compare to all the other types of gift cards in terms of fees, flexibility and the feelings they might evoke. I will also explain how each type of gift card works.

Table of Contents:

Brief (and Unofficial) History of Multi-Store Gift Cards

Happy Holidays gift cards

I have been in and around the gift card industry for about 15 years now. In addition to gift cards that are redeemable at one merchant and gift cards that are usable almost anywhere (like Visa gift cards), there are several hybrid gift cards that sit between these two extremes. Below is a list of the multi-store gift cards I’ve seen over the past decade or more:

Choice Cards: Years ago, grocery stores sold a “choice card” that recipients could swap for a store or restaurant gift card of their choosing. Since this solution pre-dates digital gifting, choice card recipients had to go to the grocery store, pick a new gift card from the rack, and pay for it with the choice card.

Category Cards: Next came category cards such as Dining Everywhere, Fuel Everywhere and Style Everywhere. Bearing the Visa logo, category cards utilize the Visa network which means they must be processed as debit or credit cards (not gift cards) at the cash register and redemption is restricted to merchants within the named category. The Style Everywhere card, for example, is usable at any boutique, shop, shoe store, department store, or online fashion retailer that accepts Visa and is categorized as a clothing merchant.

Partner Cards: A partner card is usable only at participating merchants. The Spafinder gift card, for example, is redeemable at thousands of spas and salons that signed up to be part of the Spafinder program. Go Play Golf is another. It is redeemable at any of the golf courses and pro shops affiliated with the Go Play Golf card. Because the number of participating merchants is so vast, recipients must go to the partner card website to find out where the card can be used.

That takes us to 2018 and beyond when Blackhawk Network launched two additional types of multi-store gift cards as follows:

Multi-Store Direct: Multi-store gift cards like Happy Cards are usable at a curated set of stores and restaurants shown on the card. Happy Cards run on the Visa network so they can be used directly at the merchant (without an integration into their respective point of sale systems). These cards must be run as “credit” transactions (not gift cards), and they are best used at physical locations (not online).

Multi-Store Swap: Gift cards like Giving Good®, Holiday Favorites, The Choice Card, and Happy eGift Cards work like the first iteration of choice cards except they can be swapped online. Recipients log into a website, select the egift cards they want, and complete the transaction using the multi-store swap card. Because it is digital, the exchange process is fast and flexible.

See the complete catalog of Multi-Store gift cards sold at Giftcards.com.

With so many different types of gift cards available, you may be wondering which type of gift card is best.

great value gift cards for holiday tipping

Which Gift Card Type is Best?

In my opinion, the best type of gift card for any occasion is the one the recipient will enjoy (and use!) the most. Sometimes that is a gift card to the one store you know the recipient loves and other times it’s a multi-store gift card featuring a selection of great restaurants. Your mom might dig a gift card that is usable at any store within her favorite brand family (think Marshalls, T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods) while your daughter might prefer a Visa gift card she can use to buy gas and groceries on a post-graduation road trip.

Whatever the occasion, there is sure to be a gift card that is best. By understanding the different types of gift cards available, you may be better able to pick the best one.

Different Types of Gift Cards

gift card rack at hardware store

In the list below, I will provide examples of each type of gift card, explain how they work and point out key features (such as fees and flexibility) for comparison. Using the Gift Card Flexibility Spectrum pictured above, I’ll go from left to right.

1. Single Store Gift Cards

dsw gift card with socks

Single store gift cards have been around the longest. Each is redeemable at any location within a single brand or merchant. Some popular single store gift cards include Amazon gift cards, Target gift cards, The Home Depot gift cards, Wayfair.com gift cards, Panera gift cards, Chipotle gift cards and Sephora gift cards.

How single store gift cards work:

Whether a physical plastic gift card or a digital egift card, recipients redeem single store gift cards at the issuing company’s website, mobile app and/or physical locations. In general, these gift cards are less flexible than other types of gift cards because they can only be redeemed for merchandise at one business. There is no activation fee, and most often, there are no non-use fees or expirations dates either. (Check state gift card laws to learn more about allowable gift card fees and gift card expiration in your area.)

Here are some of Giftcards.com’s most popular restaurant gift cards.

When to give a single store gift card:

When you know exactly where the recipient wants to shop, dine or be entertained.

2. Family of Stores Gift Cards

Darden gift card on clip board

Moving up the flexibility spectrum, the next type of gift card is one that is usable at any of the merchants within a family of stores. The Gap Options gift card, for example, is usable at Gap, babyGap, GapKids, GapMaternity, Athleta, Old Navy and Banana Republic, along with their respective websites. A Darden gift card is usable at Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze and other restaurants owned by the parent company. And at last check, a Landry’s gift card is redeemable at over 20 restaurants as well.

How family of stores gift cards work:

Gift cards usable at any store within a family of stores offer a bit more flexibility than single store gift cards. A lululemon gift card, for example, can only be used to buy high-quality athletic wear. But a Gap Options gift card can be used to buy high-quality athletic wear at Athleta, baby clothes at Gap, business clothes at Banana Republic and more. Instead of being tied to one brand, recipients have the option to explore any store in the merchant portfolio.

In general, family of stores gift cards have no activation fees, non-use fees or expiration dates, but state gift card laws vary so be sure to read the terms and conditions before making a purchase.

When to give a family of stores gift card:

When you know the recipient will enjoy one or more of the merchants listed on the card or you’re not sure which brands will be most convenient for the recipient to shop or dine at. More options mean the gift card is more likely to be used.

3. Multi-Store Gift Cards

happy dining gift card on prnitable

At the intersection of fee-free and flexibility sits the multi-store gift cards discussed in detail above. Though the redemption process varies by brand, each one is usable at any of the stores or restaurants listed on the card or the accompanying website. Unlike family of stores gift cards, however, the curated brands are not affiliated with each other, so you might find a Mexican restaurant, a home improvement store, a clothing merchant, a shoe store and a movie theater all on the same card. The variety allows recipients to choose their own redemption experience.

How multi-store gift cards work:

Because the stores featured on the card are not affiliated, their point of sale systems are not connected. So, these cards either must be redeemed through a banking network (e.g. run as a credit card on the Visa system) or they have to be swapped for gift cards to the selected stores.

Multi-store gift cards generally do not have activation fees, non-use fees or expiration dates.

When to give a multi-store gift card:

When you want the recipient to choose their own experience—anything from trying a new restaurant to buying shoes or going to the movies—but you don’t want to pay the fees that more flexible gift cards require.

new happy holidays gift cards

4. Category of Stores Gift Cards

everywhere gift cards

Moving across the Gift Card Flexibility Spectrum, gift cards that are usable within a category of stores offer even more flexibility as each one is redeemable at any outlet that matches the category. The Fuel Everywhere card, for example, can be used at any locally owned or national brand service station that accepts Visa debit cards.

But that flexibility comes at a cost—namely, activation fees.

How category gift cards work:

To accept Visa cards, a company must sign up for a Visa Merchant Account. In addition to several other data fields, the company must select a merchant category code (MCC) that describes their primary business. Gift cards that are usable within a category are essentially Visa gift cards that have been restricted to only work if the MCC is a match.

Category gift cards generally have activation fees. Some may have non-use fees and expiration dates as well.

When to give a category gift card:

When you want the recipient to have a particular experience (such as buying gas or dining out), but don’t want to limit their choices to specific brands—and you’re willing to pay extra to guarantee that flexibility.

5. “Any Store” Visa and Mastercard Gift Cards

visa gift card for travel

Finally, bank-issued gift cards such as Visa gift cards and Mastercard gift cards are the most flexible option because they can be used almost anywhere. These cards can be used at restaurants, clothing stores, grocery stores, shoe stores, local boutiques, street fairs and more. They can be used to pay for car repairs, parking tickets or airline tickets. They can even be used to pay bills, co-pays at doctor visits and more.

However, the price of flexibility comes in the form of activation fees, non-use fees and expiration dates.

How Visa and Mastercard gift cards work:

Because Visa and Mastercard gift cards aren’t merchant-specific, they are processed as debit or credit transactions at checkout. As of this writing, physical cards can be used in stores and online, but virtual Visa accounts and virtual Mastercard accounts are only usable online.

Activation can cost anywhere from $3 to $6 (depending on the gift card issuer and the amount loaded onto the card). If the card is not used at least once every 13 months, a monthly non-use fee (typically around $4.95) will be deducted from the card until the balance is $0. Though there is an expiration date printed on the card, holders may be able to get a replacement card (for a fee) if there is still a positive gift card balance when the plastic expires.

(Check out this infographic to learn more about how Visa gift cards are different from store gift cards.)

When to give a Visa or Mastercard gift card:

When you are willing to pay more than the face value of the gift card to ensure the recipient can use it however they want.

Summary

spafinder gift card for a wedding gift

With so many different types of gift cards to buy, how do you know which one is the best?

For me, the decision always starts with thinking about the recipient.

For graduation, I almost always create a custom Visa gift card with a picture of the graduate in their Pomp and Circumstance glory because I know the recipient is off on a new adventure. They might use the Visa gift card to buy gas on the way to college, organizers for a new apartment or lunch before they even leave town. If I don’t want to pay more than face value for the card or I don’t want to wait for delivery, I’ll get a Happy Graduation gift card that can still be used in a variety of ways. If the graduate lives out of my area, I’ll send the gift card digitally instead.

For a birthday, I like picking a single store gift card that I know the recipient will use. For my mom, that’s a DSW gift card. For my nephew, that’s a Subway gift card. But if I don’t know for sure, I’ll get a multi-store gift card like the Happy Birthday card that features a collection of good brands.

For a baby shower, wedding shower or other sentimental occasion, I love the Happy Moments gift card because of the message on the card. I’ll pair the gift card with another thoughtful item for a gift that just has to be delivered with a hug.

As you can see, I don’t have a favorite type of gift card. Each has a place in my gifting repertoire. But knowing how each type of gift card works, how much I’ll pay for it and how easy it will be for the recipient to use helps me pick the very best gift card every time.

Do you have questions about the different types of gift cards? Let me know by posting a comment below or reaching out to me on Twitter (@GCGirlfriend) or Instagram (@Gift.Card.Girlfriend) so I can answer your gift card questions.

Happy Gift Carding!

~Shelley Hunter, Gift Card Girlfriend

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Giving Good Gift Cards, Happy Gift Cards, Holiday Favorites Gift Cards, and Choice Gift Cards are curated by Blackhawk Network and issued by MetaBank®, N.A., Member FDIC.