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Make Your Own Gift Certificates or Hire a Gift Card Services Company?


'Tis the season to think about the holiday gift card options.  Will you make your own gift certificates or will you hire a gift card services company?  John Harris from Lynch + Harris offers certificate and gift card ideas and options. 

The Gift - Savvy Merchant

A Must for Independent Retailers, Restaurateurs & Service Establishments

By John S. Harris

It’s Thanksgiving Week and holiday decorations, seasonal recipes, holiday sales and special promotions start to scream at all of us. The charge is underway, and a big chunk of the action every holiday season is that special currency known as gift certificates, or gift cards. How does the independent merchant compete with the chains to make the most of the opportunity?

The answer for the independent restaurateur is the same as it’s always been. Focus on your customer base. This is a strong suit for independents, many of whom tend to personally know or at least recognize their best customers. These are your most loyal, most frequent, most spending, or some combination therein. These folks also represent your referral marketing network. The holiday season is the perfect time to engage and reward them. Though it helps greatly to utilize an online gift certificate service, it’s not essential. What is essential is to re-think your gift certificate or gift card strategy to do two things: reward your fan base; and reward the potential new fans they bring into your orbit.

Gift Certificates and Gift Cards have obvious and well known advantages, foremost amongst them being cash in the bank well before the sale that ultimately credits against it. But their less hyped advantages lie in their inherent viral marketing properties. Gifts are all about giving, of course, and there’s always a Buyer, and a Recipient involved – two consumers, not one.

Turning one consumer into two consumers is the very definition of viral marketing. Therefore, every single sale of a gift certificate is an outstanding shot at a viral marketing win.

So here are some suggestions for making the most of your gift certificate or gift card opportunities.

Issuance and Redemption Basics: 

Get the nuts and bolts in place for the rush. You cannot afford to make it difficult or time-consuming for consumers to either buy, or redeem, gift currencies from your business. If you’ve already got a system in place, then good for you. If not, I’ve put together a table (inset, below) that lays out the basics of the commercial gift world – the tools accessible to you to work the gift business.

  • Treat Gift Buyers and Redeemers THE BEST.  Sure, you and your staff treat everyone well, but the folks buying and redeeming are the best existing, and potentially best new, customers. Viral!

  • Make Them Available Online. It’s a must that customers can buy them 24X7 and frankly, it’s a pretty basic courtesy. Widespread, cheap and easy; see the table of online gift certificate services (below), if you’re not already there.

  • Stock Up. A one-dollar gift card can be sold for easily one hundred times that amount, or more. Not a time to get caught short on either your paper or mag-stripe gift stock.

  • Train The Troops. You and your staff must be fluent in the sale, and redemption cycle, particularly the POS part of it. It costs nothing to set up some practice sessions.

  • Review Your Denominations. Maybe you’ve been selling $10 certificates or cards for years, but your average check is $16. Does that make sense?

  • Know the Law. Every state is different, but there’s been a flurry of both state and federal legislation in the past two years. Go to, for a great summary..

Marketing Basics: 

It is crucial to let your customers and employees know about your gift offerings. Some inexpensive (or free), direct marketing programs that you can make happen in a couple of days:

  • Eye-catching Signs or Posters:
    • "Gift Certificates Available – On-Line or In-Store at…”
  • Table or Counter Displays. Same message
  • Staff Buttons. Fast and cheap, a million places online can create them for you overnight
  • Fliers:
    • Start putting a simple flyer into every bag or box; in every check-presenter, etc.
  • Add to Voice Mail message:
    • “Our gift certificates are available 24X7 online…”; or “We’re open special hours this year to provide gift certificates…”
  • Add simple text at the bottom of your receipts or invoices.
  • Staff Training. It’s easy to simply mention that you offer gift certificates or gift cards.

Promotion Plan  

Work the gift business both online (see table of online gift certificate services, below) and offline. Some proven strategies include:

  • Give Free Gift Certificates to your best customers. Send them via mail or email, an actual Gift Certificate / Card with a personal message, e.g.,”Thanks for you business over the years.”  Make sure you do it in a way that makes it very easy for the recipient to re-gift it if they want.  Most recipients will spend more on the back-end, both in purchases and in referral business.  If you’re too busy, some companies will do a special run of Gift Certificates complete with personalized messaging and complete fulfillment for a very small fee.

  • Buy a Gift Certificate / Get a Gift Certificate. This promotion rewards the purchaser with an additional, or separate, gift of their own. This is particularly effective with office administrators, because when the purchaser buys a $50 gift card/certificate, they would typically receive a $10 one for themselves. The big chains do very well with this strategy – Smith & Wollensky’s is one of many examples of what a proven technique it is. Online gift certificate systems (see table  below) are particularly adept at automating this and capturing all the buyer and recipient info.

  • Presuming you already have some form of customer list or database, this is the season to think more professionally about how it needs to be happening all year long. You do not want to win new customers without capturing some basic contact info about them! Get your website up to speed on this. Ask whoever handles your website to add a simple online form for customers to join your mailing list – it’s trivial and very inexpensive.

  • Send a follow-up “Thank You” via email or personal note to recipient and giver after redemption. If the recipient is a first time customer, thank them for coming to your store and reinforce your goal of personal service and product selection. Also, send a ‘Thank You” to the buyer for introducing a new customer to you and sending a best customer back to you. This simple courtesy is worth its’ weight in gold.

Gift Systems

It’s a brave new world out there as far as online gift certificate services are concerned. Your most successful competitors are already there. If you’re not, it’s never too late. Most of the systems today can be up and running in literally one or two days. I put this table together to try and simplify a pretty complicated industry. There are billion-dollar vendors and tiny start-ups in this space, and hundreds of companies. So this is merely my attempt to clarify what’s out there.

The Landscape of Online Gift Certificate Services Available to Small Businesses


Traditional Certificates

Magstripe Cards

“Virtual” Certificates


Paper or Card Stock


Email, or Mobile Token

Easy to sell in-store



Not Yet

Easy to sell online




Time to get up & running

1 -2 days

1 – 3 weeks


POS integration




Security level




Setup Costs




Loyalty-use option




Monthly Fees



Offline=Yes Online=Yes



Transaction Fees








Very low cost, can now be easily put online, little to no transaction costs, very easy to implement, many consumers like the physicality, usually specific to one merchant

Medium cost with any volume, very secure, real-time, can integrate to POS, can be used as Loyalty card, convenient, quality format

Instant delivery, more consumer personalization options, is a true “green” alternative, a very popular option with consumers, mobile option is exciting


Not as secure, not integrated with POS, printing and fulfilling is no fun, still need quality design work, no online redemption

Getting set up is typically hundreds of dollars, and POS integration adds both initial and ongoing costs

Email isn’t a very elegant gift format, redemption integration not a picnic, adds transaction costs 


Sample Vendors (with URL)



This is by no means intended to be a definitive list. There are many vendors in some of these categories and you should search on your own for all options. Listing a company here is not an endorsement, and no representation is made as to performance or reliability. puts links on the merchant’s website and handles the actual online ordering, printing and mailing to the merchant’s clients, a labor-saver has a deep, regulated list of quality magstripe system and services resellers provides both Email and Mobile forms of their virtual gift certificates. They can be customized for any merchant. also puts a link on the merchant’s website, and provides the online ordering engine and an option to print certificates online, but does not do fulfillment. serves the small business market directly, covers setup, system and fulfillment has long enabled its certificates to be provided in email form, with many discounting options puts a link on the merchant’s website and handles the online ordering. They do not do fulfillment, but offer an “Instant” eGift via email provides a wide array of gift, loyalty, credit and related card marketing and operations services offers virtual gift certificates in Email form, with many customization features for consumers. Online or in-store Redemption.

About The Author

John S. Harris has been a small business consultant for over twenty years. A former owner and operator himself, John is a principal in Lynch + Harris, a consulting firm specializing in operations management and marketing communications that helps independent restaurants and retailers expand their business and improve their operations. John can be reached at

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Topics: Holiday Marketing Consultant Support Restaurant Marketing Marketing Restaurant Marketing Ideas Gift Cards