Why Gift Cards Have Expiry Dates

Recently I saw a tweet from a comedian that I otherwise respect, asking why gift cards have expiry dates.

I have an answer and a response.

Why gift cards have expiry dates.

First, ‘fuck the corporations’ is so in right now; let us do away with that emotion and imagine you own a corner store. You live above it and struggle to make ends meet. You own several double-ended candles that you made yourself distilling midnight oil. And you re-use them. The last ten years have worn you down and you now look like those before/after photos of meth addicts (fucking hell, Heather!).

To quell the tide of imminent and catastrophic failure (words!), you decide to offer gift cards. I like it.

Now, I walk into your shop, give you $50, and you give me a $50 gift card.

You now have a $50 debt to me. If a bank was to value your business today, it would be worth everything it’s otherwise worth (including the $50 I gave you for the gift voucher), minus $50 for the debt.

Nothing wrong with that, really.

Let’s say you sell a thousand of these things. You’re now in debt for some serious coin but hooray, people start cashing in their gift cards. That’s product off the shelves and debt of the balance sheet (no cash in the drawer mind you). But alas, they often leave a remainder, so there’s a bunch of $10.05 debts outstanding (damn you $39.95 festive coffee mug set!). The gift cards go in the owners’ second drawer down next to their bed with the spare buttons, box of tissues and the second key to the 1986 commodore they sold when they were 23 and are forgotten about forever.

Now you, lowly shop owner, have a debt of some amount and you have no way of paying it back. Having debt that’s impossible to pay back is an insanely bad idea, right? (Question as a statement.) You go to the bank, you want a loan to extend your shop with a brothel that does ‘extra sick shit’. The bank turns you down because you have so much debt on your balance sheet that cannot be paid. Because in the worst case, all those gift cards could be cashed in tomorrow (or even worse: later today!). And it’s the worst case that the bank is interested in.

So your bank turns you down, your wife leaves you (you’re lesbian or male in this story) and you’re fucked, and not in the good asphyxiation way.

Belatedly, you start adding one year expiry dates to your gift cards. That’s reasonable, right? A whole year? There’s still cash flow implications, ideally gift card cash should be held in a separate account to offset the gift card debt, but you’re headed in the right direction.

Congratulations.

Naturally your customers will accuse you of being greedy, but their words won’t hurt you. You’ve had enough. You barely have the emotional strength to get out of bed each morning. You long for the day that sweet sweet death will take you away from all of this.

That’s my answer, now a response.

Questions as statements.

If you’ve got a great question, a disruptive question, something that makes people think, that will instigate a healthy debate (but let’s face it, probably not actual change) then ask away like it’s a statement. I’m all for it.

Why don’t pedestrian crossing lights have an orange? Why do they call them ‘pairs’ of underpants? Why don’t petrol stations have vending machines that I can pay for with credit card at the same time I’m filling up with petrol? And why oh why don’t ATMs have a flat spot and a hook for me to put my coffee and hang my shopping bags? *

These are all legitimate questions.

Problem is, if the answer is obvious to 40% of people, 60% of people will say “Yeah! You tell ’em” with much gusto and the remainder will switch off.

So questions as statements, or worse, questions as accusations are a dangerous game.


* I could have added “Why do water bottles have expiry dates?” But there is an answer and it’s interesting. The clue is in the question. The water bottle has an expiry date. After that date, the plastic will start leeching poisonous deadly chemicals into your water and you will die.

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