Discounts: 18 ways to get gift cards for less
Techniques to pay less than face value or boost buying power
By Erin Peterson
Few gifts can beat the versatility of a gift card. Small enough to send in an envelope and flexible enough to please even the most discerning shopper, gift cards are enormously popular. Indeed, Americans spend some $25 billion on them annually.
While gift card buyers typically pay face value for the card, savvy shoppers know that there are plenty of ways to get more bang for your buck. From social networking sites to warehouse clubs, there are more than a dozen spots to find almost any card you can imagine for less than retail price.
1. Auction sites. Auction sites such as eBay often offer discounts on cards -- but you'll need to do some research to make sure the card is legit. Check the seller's ratings and ask about any expiration date or dormancy fees that might apply. "If you can get at least a 30 percent discount on the card, I think it's worth it to go through those steps," says Fatima Mehdikarimi, a shopping and finance expert who runs ShoppingQueen.com.
2. Gift-card specific sites. Swapagift.com and PlasticJungle.com are niche sites that cater to people looking to buy, sell and trade their gift cards. "Their discounts aren't usually quite as good as the ones on eBay, but they have an extra layer of protection," says Mehdikarimi. At these sites (unlike a typical auction site), the gift card's value is guaranteed. You'll tend to find a flood of new cards -- and likely bigger bargains -- after holidays such as Christmas, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day. Want one-stop shopping? GiftCardGranny.com works with several gift card sites so you can have all the deals at your fingertips.
3. Social buying. Sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Google Offers and dozens of others offer gift certificates for local restaurants and retail establishments in dozens of metro areas, typically for 50 percent off the retail price. All three have smartphone apps that allow you to buy, store and redeem your deals. If you're out and about and looking for immediate gratification, GrouponNow's service, available on smartphones, will note your location and typically offer up dozens of deals -- from food to entertainment to retail bargains -- that are both nearby and available for purchase immediately.
4. Holiday bonuses. During the holiday season, local restaurants will look to get on your shopping list by offering extra on a gift card to sweeten the deal -- an extra $25 on a $100 card, for example. If you're looking for a deal on an upscale salon or spa, Mother's Day and Valentine's Day are two holidays on which you'll be more likely to snare a bargain. A grand-opening banner above a locally owned store is also a good sign, says Shakira Brown, a shopping expert who runs the site Retailsecrets.net. "In the service industry, you'll see a lot of gift card specials where you can get 20 percent to 50 percent off the face value," she says.
5. Warehouse and club stores. Membership really does have its privileges. Stores such as Costco and Sam's Club offer more than just 20-gallon vats of peanut butter -- they offer gift cards well below retail price. At BJ's Wholesale Club, members can pick up $100 in iTunes gift cards for $95 or $100 in Uno Chicago Grill cards for $80. At Costco, members can grab $100 of Baja Fresh or California Pizza Kitchen cards for $80.
6. Bulk buys. Do you plan to be giving the same $50 bookstore gift cards to all your friends and family for years to come? A large order might help you save some cash -- as long as you're willing to shell out quite a bit upfront. At Barnes and Noble, corporate discounts kick in at $1,000, but you'll have to spend at least $5,000 at Williams-Sonoma to snare a deal. To pursue this option, get in touch with the corporate sales department of a company and ask about volume discounts.
7. Grocery grabs. You can swing by a clothing store to buy a gift card, but you might also be able to pick up the same card from your local grocery store. You'll pay the same amount upfront, but if you have a rewards credit card that pays you back 5 percent for purchases made at a grocery store, the best option is clear.
8. Crowd-sourced deal sites: Sites such as FatWallet.com and slickdeals.net use the wisdom of the people to sniff out bargains. Head to the sites and search for "gift card" or "gc" to check out current offers for discounted gift cards that bargain hunters have discovered, plus tips on any catches, expiration dates and exclusions.
9. Local media sites. Local television stations, newspapers, radio stations and even sports teams often strike deals with companies to offer half-price gift cards (or two for the price of one) to nearby restaurants, hotels, spas and salons. If you don't find them advertised, head to the media outlet's website and search for "half price restaurants" or "dining deals."
10. Specialized sites. Sites such as Restaurant.com offer gift certificates at steeply discounted prices or throw in "extra value" credits -- usually about 10 percent of the total -- for the retailer. Others, including OpenTable.com and iDine.com, will send you a check or gift card redeemable at its participating restaurants once you've used its service frequently enough. Be sure to check restrictions before you buy. At Restaurant.com, for example, the gift certificates may require a minimum purchase and tack automatic gratuities onto the bill.
11. Twitter or Facebook. Social networking site Twitter proves that it only takes 140 characters to snare a deal. Search "gift card discount" on Twitter to find some of the current deals being offered, but recognize that you might also have to sift through a bit of trash to find the treasures. And don't get suckered by Twitter offers promising free iTunes gift cards for the cost of a click -- they're scams that'll send you straight to unsavory sites. If Facebook is more your speed, link up with deal-making organizations such as Half Off Depot Knoxville or Twin Cities Half Off Deals to get the inside scoop on discounted gift cards.
12. Miles and points. Those frequent flier card miles that are languishing in your account can often be redeemed for gift cards for movies, clothing and other retailers' products. "If you're someone who pays their bill off every month, these are freebies," says Brown. "Take advantage of them."
13. Shopping portals. Credit card companies and issuers are eager to have you buy through their shopping portals, such as Citi's Bonus Cash Center and MasterCard MarketPlace. You may pay full price for a gift card, but you'll earn a few percentage points in cash back that's credited to your account -- and the selection is often fantastic. "In many cases, the gift cards that are available are like a who's who of retailers," says Brian Preston, host of the Money Guy podcast. At Citi's site, for example, you can snare gift cards with 5 percent cash back offers from such stores as Gap, Crate & Barrel and Zappos. Airlines, too, offer shopping portals that allow you to buy gift cards at retail price while adding miles to your account, which themselves can be used to get cards. If you have a frequent flier number with an airline, consider MileagePlus Shopping (United), AAdvantage eShopping Mall (American), or SkyMiles Shopping (Delta) to grab gift cards. But no matter how you buy the cards, check for any shipping charges that could wipe away the benefits.
14. Foursquare Finds. The geolocation site may be mostly about earning badges and bragging rights, but some stores are lining up to offer gift cards to those using the service. Recent offers have come from companies including Starbucks, which randomly awarded 500 $40 gift cards to those who checked in to one of its shops during its 40th anniversary celebration in March. Sports Authority gives anyone checking into its stores a chance to win a $50 gift card in real time. And KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has delighted some travelers who have checked in for its flights via Foursquare with surprises including iTunes gift cards.
15. Targeted smartphone apps. A few fledgling smartphone apps are helping consumers get the gift cards just for stopping by a store. Shopkick, for example, works with national retailers including Best Buy, Target, and Crate & Barrel. Walk in to a participating store and collect "kickbucks" which you can redeem for gift cards for those retailers. Loopt is a social smartphone app that also rewards its heaviest users with gift cards to local restaurants and retailers.
16. Coins for cards. The ubiquitous Coinstar machines will help you turn your piggy bank of pennies into folding money, but the service comes with a hefty 9.8 percent surcharge. If you're willing to exchange your coins for a gift card, you'll bypass the fee for a dollar-for-dollar exchange. Coinstar currently has more than 25 gift card partners, including Amazon, Starbucks, CVS, and iTunes.
17. Loyalty programs. Retailers are desperate to keep you coming back to their stores, and many of them have devised clever marketing programs that reward you for your loyalty. You can pile up free $5 gift certificates for every $250 you spend at Best Buy or Ace Hardware, for example, or grab $10 gift cards every time you earn 1,500 points ($150 to $300 in spending) at DSW Shoe Warehouse.
18. Competitor generosity. Do you have a gift card stashed away from a chain that went bankrupt -- say, Borders, Circuit City or Sharper Image? You may think it is no longer worth the plastic it's printed on -- or is it? When Sharper Image went belly up, Brookstone stepped in and offered miffed Sharper Image gift card holders a chance to redeem the cards as long as they were willing to settle for 25 percent off of the card's value. Carmichael's Bookstore in Louiville, Ky., recently accepted Borders gift cards as long as the amount could be verified. Local businesses -- often massage and spa services -- may also accept gift cards from their local competitors (whether or not they're out of business), which can be a bargain if you'd never set foot in the competitor's store.
See related: Blog: Use your Borders gift card now
, Blog: Lose friends, save money by "liking" AmEx?
, Social media sites get in on contest fun
Updated: December 20, 2011