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Black Friday, so called because it kicks off the holiday shopping season that retailers hope will bring the $4.7 trillion industry into the black, is just weeks away. But last year, continuing a growing trend, more shoppers chose to purchase gift cards rather than merchandise, skewing some sales reports. This article examines the varying accounting treatments for gift card sales and their subsequent redemption patterns.
The National Retail Federation said 2006 holiday sales (those occurring in November and December) of gift cards were $27.8 billion. Overall holiday sales were $663 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Independent financial services research firms have estimated holiday gift card sales were as much as $75 billion. In fact, no one really knows the aggregate effect of gift card transactions because retailers rarely provide separate information on gift card sales and redemptions.
The accounting for gift card sales presents an emerging reporting dilemma for retailers. Unresolved issues stemming from the reporting treatment of gift card sales and "breakage" (gift cards that consumers fail to redeem) potentially encroach upon several accounting regulations, including standards for revenue recognition and the recognition of special items. In practice, the reporting of gift card sales and breakage among retailers varies significantly and it is unclear what future action, if any, standard-setters and regulators will take toward unifying the range of practices.
ADVANTAGES TO SELLERS
Gift cards offer buyers and gift recipients a variety of product choices but restrict those choices to a single or limited number of retail service providers. This consumer-merchant trade-off provides plenty of economic justification for retailers to offer, and even to promote, gift card sales, because retailers stand to derive several potential economic benefits.
Increased sales. The gift card's product selection option can persuade indecisive buyers to make purchases they might not otherwise make. Moreover, a gift card may induce additional sales when the card is redeemed. The predetermined, fixed gift cam value essentially translates into a minimum purchase guarantee upon redemption. However, the lumpiness of the pricing of retail items makes it likely that the recipient will spend additional money to buy an item of greater value, as opposed to leaving a balance on the card.
Marketing opportunities. When gift cards are used as a gift, they generate marketing benefits by offering the retailer two customer contacts and two sales opportunities, as opposed to only one. Gift card transactions also generate incremental information that the company may be able to translate into additional future period …