Card Smart

Shopping Your Options For Gift Certificates

By Heather Gallegos

Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, November/December 2008.

With so many options available, deciding how to manage and redeem gift certificates can be a bit intimidating. Spas and estheticians must consider costs and client purchasing preferences when setting up gift certificate programs. There is something for every size and shape practice. Knowing some basics is the best way to start.

Paper. The lowest-tech option, preprinted paper certificates, can be custom ordered from printers or printed on your choice of paper from the Members section of the Associated Skin Care Professionals (ASCP) website at

When purchased, the recipient’s name and dollar value of the gift is handwritten by you or your staff, often in neat printing or calligraphy, and assembled into a gift bag, envelope, or other packaging. Manual creation of these certificates is their main drawback, as shoppers who want to buy while at home, work, or outside normal business hours will need to wait until they can purchase them in person or receive them by mail. There’s always a chance they’ll go elsewhere for easier shopping. Paper certificates are not as durable and may not fit as neatly into purses and pockets. The positives are they are inexpensive and flexible.

Shopping Cart. Online purchases of paper or plastic gift certificates can be enabled with a simple shopping cart link from your own website in standard $50, $100, $150, and $200 denominations. Setting this up with most vendors does not involve a fee, although there are fees of 1.9–2.9 percent, plus $0.30 per transaction. Discounted CellCharge services, an ASCP member benefit, offer online shopping carts in addition to credit card processing services. See page 30 for details.

Instant. Instant online gift certificates allow last-minute shoppers to purchase and immediately print out gift certificates on their home or work printers. Instant certificates provide immediate gratification and a solution for the very last-minute shopper. From the standpoint of your business, there is a drawback—your brand may suffer if the quality of the paper or ink is poor. This option loses the impact of a beautifully presented gift card and envelope or gift bag. Still, this may help you capture business that would otherwise go elsewhere, since nearly a quarter of gift certificates are purchased the week before a holiday.

To use this option, a customized link from an instant gift certificate provider like guides shoppers through a purchase. Options for the dollar value or the descriptions of the services can be customized by you when you set up your account. There is usually a flat set-up fee and a per transaction fee (typically around 5 percent of the certificate value) in addition to regular credit card or shopping cart transaction fees.

Plastic Debit Cards. Having a reusable, custom-branded plastic gift card is the most sophisticated and well-branded method of selling gift certificates. They fit neatly into wallets, and are attractive and durable. Cards are preordered and require manual processing during business hours to load the cards with the dollar value of the purchase. They also can be purchased online with a simple shopping cart like CellCharge. The wonderful benefit of plastic gift cards is the ability to reload and maintain balances right on the cards, offering you repeat business and a chance to tie them into loyalty programs.

The behind-the-scenes view of plastic gift certificates is more complicated and has a higher set-up fee than the other options. There is a startup fee of a few hundred dollars for a first card order, plus a need for a new or existing credit card/point-of-service (POS) terminal. The cost of a POS terminal, needed to swipe the card, will vary by vendor. Some include this at no cost, others will charge $100 or more. There are ongoing fees, calculated either monthly or by transaction that are typically less than $40 per month, depending on volume. You also can benefit from the competitive nature of the business—there are multiple vendors from which to choose for card printing and processing. This option is best for those estheticians or spas with well-established brands, custom websites, and predictable repeat business.

Plastic Without the Stripe. There is a plastic option that isn’t as expensive as the model that works with a credit card/POS terminal. Printing plastic cards, much as you would print a business card, is possible to do in smaller quantities. You can print on both sides and use lovely designs already available. A recommended minimum is 500 cards, which will cost about $200. You may choose to imprint a set dollar value on the cards, and print a variety of denominations, or simply have an attractive card with an envelope or packaging that specifies the dollar value for the recipient. You may need to issue new envelopes with adjusted amounts if the recipient uses the card over several visits. You’ll need careful bookkeeping to know what you sold to whom and for how much. A downside is some customers will expect plastic cards to function like debit cards.

There’s no one answer to which option is best; knowing what works for your business is key. With careful management, any gift certificate program can be the gift to a business that keeps on giving.