Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ho-ho-oy this gift-card season?

First, the bad news for mall-based restaurants: Consumers are planning to spend less on holiday shopping this November and December than they did in 2004, according to a new survey. That could mean less time spent in retail centers, since ionospheric gas prices were cited as a main reason for the cutback.

And now the good news, for restaurants of almost every stripe: The same canvass found that one of the presents consumers are most likely to buy this year is the gift card or certificate, the little somethings that have added up to a huge boon for restaurants in each of the last two Christmas-Hannukah seasons.

About 70% of respondents in the survey by Unity Marketing said they planned to spread cheer this December by giving either cash or credit for a purchase. Restaurant gift cards are among the most popular types of the latter. Chains have found that the offer of the cards not only pulls in shoppers before the holidays, but delivers a boon in the otherwise dead months of January and February, when the gift recipients come in to use their present. Card-bearers also tend to spend more than what’s on the card, or what they’d usually lay out if they were using their own cash.

But there is a huge asterisk to a finding that should otherwise be as warming as a mug of cocoa. It’s already prompted the catalog-shopping industry to up-end its marketing strategy this year. As The New York Times <> reported last week, the major mail-order houses have already shipped their catalogs to prospective customers, weeks ahead of the usual posting dates. The move is a cagey defense against the budget-gobbling effects of higher fuel costs—not gas prices, which theoretically should help catalog retailers, but fuel-oil charges. The shop-by-mail specialists are hoping to get consumers to place their holiday gift orders before the first heating bill arrives. Otherwise, a dramatic gulp could be followed by a dip into the Christmas kitty.

We figured that restaurant companies would follow suit, given how important gift cards have become to their wintertime sales. Yet in poking around, we’ve not found any accelerated activity. It may be that the industry is still relatively new to holiday retailing, and doesn’t comprehend yet the dynamics which affect that small but growing aspect of their business. But certainly the big players must have hired retailing talent to put them in that arena. Shouldn’t those experts jumpstart marketing efforts right away, before the fuel trucks start pulling up to card-buyers’ homes?

Sorry to be a Grinch. But the industry may have slipped into hibernation on this issue.

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