The Contrarian: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

—by , April 13, 2012

As I get older and exponentially less cute, the gifts from the near-faceless sea of my mother’s friends at holidays and birthdays have gone from tangible objects, like clothes and girl shit, to a direct gesture at the potential of my owning said clothes and girl shit: Gift cards, gift cards, gift cards. These little bitties fit in your wallet and are essentially representative of free, delicious money, the specific applicability of that money notwithstanding. I mean, it’s a gift card; if the giver had known you follow a barter system based on good faith rather than credit, you might not be one of the people on their “Question Mark/Gift Card” list. At least they got you something.

Some gift cards are great for nearly every one; the straight up credit card gift card is widely appreciated, save the case that you have a blood-grudge. Even if you aren’t a huge moviegoer, the gift of the movie theater gift card provides a superfluous amount of credit to spend in the case that your ship-crazy friend wants to drag you only half unwillingly to see The Hunger Games. Gas station gift cards are a boon for most of us these days, though a standard $25 will get you but half a tank. And a double “hell yeah” on restaurant cards, especially for 24-hour diners.

Yet, we somehow manage to let our gift cards expire and collect dust. A stack of gift and punch cards are loudly colorful and in plain sight, strategically placed to catch a gaze too busy with other things. The best laid plans to soothe the sting of an Express purchase turns to regret when you realize you forgot your gift card and “Oh my god, I don’t even shop here…” reflexively comes out, as does more money than you intended to spend, embarrassing everyone involved. And the situations involving food or gas gift cards tell like tragedies, so we won’t go there today.

As always, New Jersey wants to deal with it their way. Under the conservation administration of Governor Chris Christie in 2010, a new budget was passed to find more money. One of the laws passed in conjunction required vendors to collect the respective ZIP codes from gift card buyers for the purpose of laying claim of the value associated with unused gift cards to the state. If unclaimed, this credit would belong to the company or store from which the card was purchased. In addition to travelers’ checks and money orders, the Treasury saw the potential for previously untapped revenue to the tune $79 million in the 2011 fiscal year.

Collection had been temporarily suspended in lieu of lawsuits (since amalgamated and yet to be argued), and has since been re-issued with what might as well be the blessing of the state Senate, which has not contended with the Assembly’s pitch for reversal in March. Opponents largely claim that it hurts businesses to require this kind of compliance, especially without appropriate disclosure, in turn hurting the consumer, who might want to buy a gift card that is now unavailable because businesses don’t want to deal. American Express and two other companies have already pulled their cards from New Jersey shelves.

Okay, yeah—businesses don’t like being told what to do and it is too much to deal with these changes on top of the day-to-day struggle pretending they don’t want to hurt the customer. But you? All you have to do is write down five digits. And unless your card expires, in which case you wouldn’t have access to that credit outside of a lawsuit, anyway, the government isn’t taking shit from you.

What I find particularly funny about this is that we get all pissy about the government taking our money and spitting it back at us in the unsatisfactory form of tax returns and public education, but we have thought little of the value we are handing over to companies, pregnant with potential impulse buys, with a lukewarm awareness that leans towards self-blame and an “Oh well!” Here, it is the government that is aiming to account for the money directly entitled to the purchaser and recipient of a gift card. But I guess we are more comfortable letting businesses get fat rather than stand the idea that the government might get their filthy paws on the cashmere that could have been.

I’d almost rather an ugly sweater than a gift card I’m not immediately excited about because most sweaters are not that ugly and I could probably buy an equally ugly sweater at Urban Outfitters and call it Salvation Army chic. I can also re-gift a sweater with conscience using the rationale that the sweater is probably more expensive than a sweater I would buy as a gift. And finally, not only would re-gifting a gift card feel like shirking responsibility, I would be insulting my own creativity if I couldn’t find a way to spend this money.

I mean, spending money is like, in my genes and junk. And it’s totally the most American thing you can do, yanno?

    reader responses
  1. “Here, it is the government that is aiming to account for the money directly entitled to the purchaser and recipient of a gift card.”

    That’s not quite right. First, the government isn’t “accounting for” the money as much as snatching it – and in true New Jersey fashion, like some guy named Vito insisting that he’s only doing so to “protect you”. Ever try to claim unclaimed funds that belong to you back from the state? The paperwork and hoops you have to jump through would make Kafka blush.

    Secondly, New Jersey wants to take the entire value of the card. Let’s break this down -your Aunt Fanny makes a purchase in a retail store to give to you in the form of a gift card. Let’s assume the purchase was enough to buy the ugly sweater you mention. Now, the store bought/ produced the sweater for say 20 bucks, and sells it for 45. For a normal purchase where the customer pays and takes the merch home, the business keeps the mark-up as profit. Nothing oppressive or conspiratorial , just normal business. But now, because the purchase is “time shifted” (to borrow a phrase from copyright law) using a gift card, the state thinks that it has the right to take not just the value of the merchandise, but the profit the business would have made on the sale as well. You’re saying that’s fair? And that doesn’t even take into account the cost of issuing and tracking the card. And now the state wants to add the extra cost of keeping track of those “five digits” for each card, which in the aggregate is millions of dollars. You feel me? (hey look at me using that hip street lingo those kooky kids use!)

    Finally, unclaimed property law varies from state to state, so 1) they’re making national businesses take special steps for New Jersey ($$), and 2) even with the variance, the general rule (as determined by the Supreme Court in Texas v. New Jersey) is that unclaimed property escheats first to the state of the last known address of the owner (and for gift cards who is that? You or your Aunt Fanny? What if she lives in Florida?) and if that address is unknown, to the state of incorporation of the business, and if that state doesn’t escheat that type of property some states have tried to claim that it should go to the state where the transaction occurred.

    New Jersey tried to turn that scheme on its head and say that FIRST it should go to the state where the transaction occurred, and that they were going to make sure that all New Jersey transactions were “accounted for” by making businesses foot the bill for keeping track of them, so that they could then have the pleasure of forking over the whole amount of the transaction to the state when consumers were lazy.

    Personally, my politics are as libby-lib as they come, but this is one area where I’m rabidly pro-business. New Jersey needs to find another way to balance their books.

    Tom on 4/16/2012 at 11:20 AM 

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