With some major holiday coming up where there's bound to be a lot of gifts given by people who don't really know what the recipients would want a likely way that situation will be handled will involve the purchase and distribution of gift cards. Now, let's commence this with the requisite acknowledgment that any effort made to give a gift is laudable; by no means should any lack of gratitude by inferred, as none is implied. However, as the saying goes, it's the thought that counts, and there's a certain level where gift cards don't seem to connote much thought by the giver.
There's plenty of catches to using gift cards that the banks and issuers of the cards hid in the fine print—not the least of which tends to be fees that deduct from the amount available on the card if it's not used within a certain window of time—but that is getting unnecessarily nit-picky about this. After receiving and using—or, perhaps I should say, attempting to use—a number of gift cards over the years, I can distill the problems with them down to two obvious problems.
The first is admittedly one that some people probably do not encounter, but for me the initial issue is simply remembering that I have one (or more). If it's only usable at a given store or location I must think ahead of time that I might be there and bring the card. My wallet is already pretty full, so making room for another credit card-sized item is not always that feasible. However, even if I do squeeze it into my wallet, I have to recall when I'm at the place and buying something that I have some special means of payment. Even for general cards that can be used like a credit card it doesn't get any better; in that scenario I'm not even some place semi-special and possibly inclined to associate that with a specific gift card for the store, and thus even less likely to remember.
Even when I remember that I have one when paying for a purchase, the second and far more insidious aspect of gift cards kicks in: the amount available on the card is never the same as what I'm paying for costs. If the card has less than what I'm buying, which turns the process into a multi-step transaction, obligating the clerk to enter a specific amount for each card used (and then leaving a balance to be paid by me at the end); if the card has more than what I'm buying there's a balance left on the card that I am obligated to try to remember when I try to use it again (and which, invariably, I won't).
While neither of these hurdles are insurmountable, there's no denying that the situation presented by using gift cards does require more effort on the part of the recipient to use them than would, say, cash. So why don't people who are giving the gift merely put money (be it cash or a check) in the envelope? Presumably they consider it tacky, or think it suggests they were too lazy to even go get a gift card. So let's just all resolve to get over that; cash needs to be happily accepted without any connotation of laziness (that, or gift cards need to be seen as just as lazy).
We can change social mores about this stuff much more easily than we can make gift cards easier to use.
(Or we could just accept the notion that as adults who have jobs and can buy things for ourselves, the sense of obligation to exchange gifts is outdated and no longer applicable. There's that angle as well.)
But for everyone who may have already bought me a gift card, allow me to assure you that I'll appreciate it very much.