The holidays are over, and by now you've put away your gifts, taken down the decorations, and hauled the tree to the curb or landfill. And you're using all those nice little plastic gift cards you found in your stocking at those great January sales.
But when their balances drop to $0, don't throw them away - collect them!
Of course, most people are more interested in the cash values of the cards, but an ever-growing cadre of collectors has begun to appreciate the sheer variety and often quirky aesthetics of the cards themselves. Gift cards are not just plain, logo-bearing bits of plastic anymore - many offer lights, sound, and action! Some cards have LED's (Light Emitting Diodes) while others have recordable sound chips. Lenticular cards appear to change pictures when they are rocked slightly back and forth.
First offered in 1995, gift cards have quickly replaced paper gift certificates at most major retailers. Like many innovations, most people did not foresee their value as collectibles, and many of the early cards are now extremely rare and can command bids of several hundred dollars at online auctions.
Today, distinctive designs and their variations number in the thousands. (eBayer Thomas-Technologies, below, estimates that 600+ designs- with some 2000 variations - have been issued by Target alone!) Including error cards, limited-edition cards, and cross-collectible cards, like Wal-Mart's recent Star Wars series, it's understandable that interest in this relatively new collectible can generate a wide range of activity at online auction sites.
As with any collectible, there are caveats. One is to beware of fake error cards. Genuine errors are rare, but one can be easily manufactured by removing the top thin layer of plastic. Another is to read all auction and sale descriptions carefully. Some of the cards offered at online auctions are being bid up by people who think they are buying cards holding purchasing power, but a card with, for example, a $500 face value, could have a zero balance. Reputable dealers will label cards that are inactive or that carry no balance "for collector purposes only," or words to that effect.
Interestingly, a controversy particular to this collectible has been waging in the community (check out the forum at GiftCardCollector, below): Is it theft to remove an inactive card from a retailer's property? Though some collectors insist that it is not larcenous to just help themselves to items marked "of no value unless/until activated," the consensus is that the retailer should be asked. And, in fact, more and more retailers are either selling inactive cards for nominal amounts or are setting minimal load limits of $1 to $5. Active or not, the cards are the retailer's property until time of purchase.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to ask, and some retailers will let a collector take inactive cards gratis, but don't forget that using a fee-free $5 card to purchase $5 worth of items renders the card "free" in the end.
For more information on collectible plastic gift cards, the following sites are recommended:
Commercial site devoted to Starbucks cards and sleeves.
This "Plastic Card Collecting Community" offers news, card gallery, forum, and an invaluable list of links.
Gift Cards Are Here to Stay
Note: the following link opens up a PDF file.
This fascinating piece by Jason Praw covers the history of the gift card in addition to its use as a marketing tool.
Guide to Collecting & Selling Target GiftCards on eBay
This guide by eBayer "thomas-technologies" offers a host of tips on identifying Target gift cards.