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Gucci, Gaga and Gifts Cards: A brief history into the gift that keeps on giving

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The recently released ‘House of Gucci’ has spun the fashion industry into quite a stir with many allegations from the legitimately Gucci family claiming the film is disrespectful, false and offensive. But that’s not what has caught the attention of some others…

While recently watching the film I saw a scene that definitely caught my eye which brought about a number of questions. The scene is described as follows ‘In a Christmas scene set in the mid-80s, a character gives a gift card as a gift.’…

Now, why would that catch my eye you might ask? Well, the real history is that gift cards weren’t properly introduced into mainstream culture till about 1994 when Neiman Marcus was the first one to bring them onto the scene. Unfortunately due to poor publicity, it is often sighted, but incorrectly, that it was Blockbuster that was first, due to a strong marketing and PR campaign.

This whole issue is further exasperated as many historians and early 20th-century economists would argue that gift ‘certificates’ have been around in the marketplace for decades.

So what is the truth and how was ‘House of Gucci’ able to slip it by you so easily?

The answer truly lies in the social acceptance of gift cards and their predominance in our mainstream culture, let alone our personal lives. Historians have argued that gift ‘tokens’ have been around since the Roman Empire when the Roman emperor was presented with tokens of good luck by his people. The idea of gift-giving in the earliest sense was focused on leaders of civilizations, and was, from the start, a way of establishing social connections and superior status. 

Coming back closer to the 18th and 19th centuries, Marcel Mauss in 1924 wrote his ‘Essay On the Gift’ which studied the fundamental relationship forming mechanisms that gifting provides as well its pinnacle role in society. This role describes an intricate system of bond-building, respect and social cohesiveness that was a direct symptom of the need for industrialisation – which in turn was further driven by the grasps of capitalism and its growth post-1930’s, 1940’s in the United States and western counterparts. Gift cards have only shown substantial growth in popularity since the latter half of the 1990s. They went from being negligible in terms of sales dollars in 1997 to gross over $63 billion in 2005.

When you examine gift cards from an economical position, the use of gift cards is logarithmic by its very nature. Back in 2012 two out of every three people had bought a gift card, and the growth of the gift market was faster than the US GDP, China’s GDP and Apple’s Stock. Looking at this through the lens of post-COVID 2021, it is even more apparent that the use of gift cards has been a powerful medium to maintain trade, especially when more and more retailers are establishing loyalty programs to supplement them. This coupled with the further digitalisation of our marketplaces has shown a significant paradigm shift in what we value as gifts in themselves, and the barter that surrounds them. 

It was said by Filip Zajdel (Business Development Manager for Sparta Loyalty)“In recent discussions with our clients and partners, we have been informed that they have no problems selling their products at full price when the client pays with a gift card”. 

This is evidence enough to show us that companies rely heavily on the use of gift cards in their industries as well as wanting to support the consumer behaviour that surrounds them.

It can be said, at least in the historical sense, with the excess of the 1980’s you can argue that the filmmakers be forgiven for assuming gift cards were a mainstream concept and would include something like this in the ‘House of Gucci’ film. Further, the film does serve as a warning for the concept of greed and its pull to nefarious behaviour. But this in itself shouldn’t dismay us from the use of gift cards, oh no-no.

In an ever-expanding marketplace, with uncertain times and an ever-changing retail/services landscape, gift cards in themselves represent the resilience and innovation of our established barter systems. If anything, we could be living in a future where the currency in the digital form will be no different from the protocols established by gift cards. You could argue that is it already among us.

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