Gift Cards: Local Meaning, Local Purpose

In our exploration of why people give gift cards and how this growing trend might be different than giving physical gifts, an expert in the field shared a surprising insight that one of the corporate powerhouses of gift card sales found time and again when conducting market research: large numbers of both gift card givers and recipients have a lingering feeling that despite current opportunities to customize cards and even include personalized messages, gift cards are in some ways a “cop out”. Something along the lines of “I didn’t pay enough attention to be sure what you’d like, so here’s a card from [retailer x] so you can get what you really want”. To be fair, sometimes this is not far from the truth, through no fault of either party. However, when we talked to folks in our community we came to an important realization: gift cards from local businesses can mitigate these concerns to a large degree! Here’s how:


  • How often in your day to day conversations does someone say something like “we were downtown at that new place on Railroad and such-and-such happened…”? Or, “I got the greatest widget the other day over at…”? When a gifting occasion arises, these are great conversations to reflect on and subsequently give a card that clearly says “I was listening” or “I care”.


  • Conversely, suppose that despite your best efforts, nothing comes to mind about your interactions with that person that really gives you an idea for a more meaningful local gift. Or you need to send a “thank you” card to a business associate that you’ve just met who made time for you in their busy schedule, or helped you meet that deadline you might have otherwise have missed. What then? Pick up a card from the ubiquitous national chain that you always default to for such occasions? No! Think about the local businesses you frequent. Why do you buy from them, instead of a large “corporate” competitor? Selection? Customer service? Product knowledge? Just plain great people? These reasons are direct reflections of who you are, and what you value. Think about the message you send when buying someone a gift card from one of these establishments: “This is something that is personally important to me and I wanted to share it with you” or simply “check this place out – I love it and I think you will too!” Does this send a clearer, more personal message than the generic “usual” choice? You bet!


Another aspect of buying someone a local gift card is that for many people buying local simply feels good! Most of us are at least aware of research or statistics that show the economic impact of keeping a larger percentage of consumer dollars circulating in the community rather than having them “siphoned off” to corporate entities across the country or even overseas. We’d really like to shop local. Really, we would. But when we asked folks around Whatcom County why they don’t shop local more, they pretty much universally offer one of two main concerns:


  • First, whether it is true or not , there is at least a perception that buying local costs more, sometimes much more. News flash; in the case of many local businesses this is simply not true! Nonetheless, it is often human nature to let perceptions, not necessarily facts, drive our behavior.
  • Second, and perhaps more valid, is the reality that sometimes it is less convenient to head downtown and find a place to park, or drive to Lynden to buy what we need from a Whatcom County independent business. It’s much quicker and easier to head to the mall or stop by a big-box store that’s close by with lots of parking.


So… People really want to shop local and doing so gives them some sort of warm feeling that they are making a difference, supporting the community, or making more personal connections when they do, but there are significant hurdles to making it happen. Can gift cards play a role in this conundrum? Absolutely! Let’s look at the first concern: buying local is perceived as being more expensive. Now let’s consider the perspectives of both the gift card buyer and the recipient.


  • Buyer – “Yeah, prices might be higher at a local business, but I don’t care because I’m doing something that will make both me and [Recipient] feel good; buying local! Plus, I’m not actually buying the goods, so the fact that they might be a little pricier doesn’t matter to me, I’m just giving [there’s Recipient again. Why are they so important to this Buyer person?] a gift at a great local spot!” **Hurdle cleared!**
  • Recipient – Wow! What a great gift! I’ve been meaning to swing by there but I can’t afford the extra ?? percent, and they’re kinda out of the way. But wait… it’s not my money, and I can’t spend it anywhere else, so who cares if they are a little spendier (and they  do have the coolest stuff!). Plus, I’m certainly not going to walk away from the chance to shop there just because of an extra five minute drive… Duh! Favorite widget, here I come! Gee… [Buyer] is soooo thoughtful!” **Yup, chalk one up for [Buyer]!**


So, next time you need to buy a gift card, think about all of the ways that giving a card from a local, independent business can better say “I care!” or “I’m listening!” or “You rock!” or “Luv ya!” or “Happy widget appreciation day!” and keep on walking past that big corporate gift card kiosk and head to instead. Local means happy.


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Whatcom Gift Cards - Bellingham, Fairhaven, Ferndale and Lynden
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