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Gift Cards: Issues and Opportunities for Retailers

AMAC Peer ReviewedGiles Sutton
Grant Thornton LLP
February 2011

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Gift card sales have surged in recent years. With electronic or virtual gift cards and mobile applications that allow consumers to purchase and redeem gift cards from their mobile/smart phones, sales only continue to grow. While consumers flock to them for their flexibility, businesses have embraced them as a means to increase sales. Not only are buyers spurred into making new purchases, but they often spend more than the gift card amount.

For retailers, gift cards can also be instrumental to improving cash flow and managing inventory. Perhaps the greatest benefit to retailers is that a sizable number of consumer gift card purchases are never redeemed. Estimates of the percentage of gift card balances that remain unredeemed — otherwise known as breakage — range from 10 to 19 percent. While gift card breakage has certain accounting and state escheat implications, since it affects income recognition, these unredeemed dollars can have a significant influence on many companies’ bottom lines.

But with the growth in the use of gift cards comes an uptick in scrutiny and regulation, especially within the past year. For consumers, there is increased protection under Title IV of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act), which went into effect in early 2010. The CARD Act restricts gift card issuers from charging fees on cards for 12 months and extends card expiration until five years after purchase. In addition, the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) and the IRS have recently issued new rules for companies with gift card programs, providing much-needed guidance.

“Gift cards have become an area of both opportunity and risk for retailers. They have come to provide a critical source of earnings, yet at the same time, the regulatory environment, including tax and financial reporting for gift cards, has become increasingly complex. The bottom line is that financial executives within the retail industry cannot afford to be blindsided by tax, regulatory and financial reporting changes in this area,” cautions Giles Sutton, State and Local Tax (SALT) partner and national Retail Tax practice leader.