by Alex Palmer | March 06, 2018
Gift cards have been undergoing an evolution in recent years, expanding from serving a specific, limited (if important) function, to something more holistic; shifting from "gifts" to "branded currency" that offers a far wider range of possibilities, as employee incentives for self-use or promotional tools for consumers. To learn more about where gift cards are going, we spoke with Cindy Mielke, CPIM, director of marketing and sales operations for GC Incentives and GiftCertificates.com. She discussed the changes she is seeing and the promise this expanding segment of the industry offers for incentive planners, marketers, and merchants alike.

What is most exciting to you right now about the gift card space?

For both GC Incentives and the industry, I am excited about the interest we are seeing from promotional marketing agencies, or what we call our value-added resellers. Having recently been invited to speak to this audience at the ASI Show in Orlando and at PPAI Expo on behalf of the Incentive Marketing Association, I am encouraged by the number of agency resellers attending the sessions that are now recognizing the value of expanding their business to solutions and adding brands, technology providers, and gift cards to their product suite. GC recently joined both ASI and PPAI and has worked to bring them a solution that enables them to make a margin, bring gift cards to the table and keep their client relationships instead of sending them elsewhere. This channel's interest in solutions for incentive and recognition programs is very exciting for all suppliers to value-added resellers and agencies. 

All the recent research from the Incentive Gift Card Council and the Incentive Research Foundation points to the growing use of gift cards by medium and large organizations as well as the use of them as the most popular rewards in a variety of employee and customer/consumer programs. In addition, recent research from The IRF showing support of non-cash rewards as most desired as opposed to cash and cash-like rewards further supports giving gift cards because of the experience they provide to recipient.

At GC Incentives, we are definitely seeing requests for personalization of the gift card delivery and we accommodate that with our GiftPass and SuperCertificate that includes a logo along with a personal message that is delivered with a code that the recipient can use to access their choice of gift cards for the reward experience they desire. Along with personalization, we are seeing a continued increase in digital rewards and in adding photos, videos and animation to the digital reward experience. These were popular enhancements for the holiday season this year for GC customers.

With all these changes happening, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing the sector? 

I recently read an article by Holly Glowaty of KH Connection talking about how branded currency will save retail. The challenge, she explains, is viewing the gift card solely as a payment method versus a way to combine the branded payment method with loyalty points, coupons, or promotional codes for an entire experience with your brand. I would add to that the online experience of brick-and-mortar retailers who attempt to sell online has to be a focus. 

Digital gift cards are increasingly popular and so is online shopping, as last year's holiday shopping season showed us. But my attempts to support brick-and-mortar merchants with in-store pick up or delivery were incredibly frustrating -- with website issues and stores not being able to accept delivery or even worse, the in-store pick-up experience being inconvenient or having lost my order. 

What I'm trying to say is that gift cards are increasingly in demand by clients for all kinds of programs and they are a top reward choice for recipients. The more merchants embrace that and create a true branded currency experience, the more that will help strengthen the gift card solutions we sell. 

What are some ways that GC Incentives is helping to address these issues? 

We're really excited about our new expiring claim codes for consumer campaigns. Our clients only pay for awards that are used by directing recipients to a branded page we create for them where they "claim" their reward and then they visit a branded redemption site to redeem for gift cards of their choice. This is also great for instances where registration or validation is desired and it can be white-labeled to our clients or branded for their customer. This solution provides our clients with valuable marketing or customer information during the claiming process.