When the going gets tough, the tough still go shopping. Even with retail and finance experts predicting a slow holiday shopping season, seasonal spending is still expected to grow - albeit only slightly - this year. The big difference, experts predict, is that consumers will be much more particular about what they buy, attracted by items and deals that they find most exciting.For many, it seems, gift cards still make the list. In a 2008 survey of 3,000 shoppers, 60 percent said they plan to purchase at least one gift card this year, according to consumer research firm, the Hartman Group of Bellevue, Wash. And those who have more money to spend - people with annual incomes of $150,000 or more - say they will buy nearly six gift cards each, the report says.

"Shoppers may be spending less, but they're demanding more value - and excitement - from the items they do purchase," says Eric Goldreyer, founder and chief executive officer of BedandBreakfast.com, a specialty travel Web site that will woo gift card purchasers this year with completely customizable cards that can be imprinted with the buyer's own photography or image. "The qualities that have attracted shoppers to gift cards in the past - like convenience and confidence that the recipients will like the gift - are still attractive. But this year, there are some extra bonuses to buying gift cards," he says.

Online Convenience

While retail experts forecast in-store holiday shopping will be tepid at best, they also predict online shopping will stay strong. In recent years, gift cards have done well with online shoppers. With a few clicks of a mouse, consumers can send a totally personalized gift card directly to the recipient. "At a time when gas prices are high enough to hurt, not having to drive to the mall or around town looking for the right gift is a huge plus for holiday shoppers," Goldreyer says.

What's more, some online sellers offer free shipping of gift cards.

BedandBreakfast.com, for example, charges no shipping or handling fees on purchases of its Getaway Gift Cards, which can be used at nearly 4,000 B&Bs throughout the United States and Canada. Spend over $100 and the site will FedEx your gift card at no charge.

One Size Can Fit All

While shoppers favor the convenience of gift cards, many have also felt a sense of guilt about giving a gift that some perceive as too generic. This season, however, gift cards are developing personalized appeal.

"Not only can you find a gift card for virtually anything you want to purchase, you now have countless options for customizing the gift," Goldreyer says. Some sellers, including BedandBreakfast.com, offer a range of gift wrapping and delivery options, from fancy boxed cards to the ability to immediately print a gift card from your home printer.

Others gift card retailers are appealing to consumers' search for excitement and personality. BedandBreakfast.com, for example, now allows buyers to create a customized card complete with a personalized message and choice of design. Buyers can either select a pre-set design or upload their own image or photo. Looking for a gift for the boss? Upload a funny picture of the staff wearing amusing hats. Need something exciting yet touching for parents? Give a gift card with a picture of the whole family, including a message to remind them how important they really are.

"There's no doubt the economy will impact holiday sales this year," Goldreyer says. "But gift cards that give consumers convenient, exciting and customizable choices fit the bill for a personalized gift for that person that has everything."

Courtesy of ARAcontent

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