Selling Gift Cards on Your Website: You Can Do It Better

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By Robert Sindelar, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington

Last week one of our employees, a 10-year bookselling veteran, had her last day at Third Place Books. She is moving with her family to another major city. As a gift, I wanted to buy her some gift cards to indie bookstores in the city that will be her new home. Here, to my surprise, is what I found on the websites of several of that city's major independent bookstores.

Out of four bookshops, only one offered free shipping on gift cards (all offered free in-store pick-up). One charged $.50, another charged $1.00, and a third charged $7.50 – that’s right, $7.50. Of course, I realize that the store's staff probably has very little idea that this is what the website is charging to ship gift cards. (At least, I hope so!) But I am very sure that they are losing customers by not being aware of this flaw on their e-commerce site.

Most booksellers know that a significant number of gift cards are never redeemed, or may never get fully redeemed. Charging anything for shipping a gift card seems like one more reason for customers to think twice about shopping on your website.

Only two out of the four shops allowed me to include a message with the card. If I had called these stores, I am sure that the clerk helping me would have offered this service. Why not offer it on the store's website?

One out of the four shops did not have “gift card” as a direct link from its homepage. (It was on a drop down bar under “About Us” and took much longer to find than any web-expert would tell you is permissible.)

Having attended a number of [ABA COO] Len Vlahos’ presentations on e-commerce over the years, there is one thing that I remember hearing at every one: “If you have a website where customers can purchase merchandise, you need to make purchases there yourself (as should your staff), so you know what the customer experience is like.”

I finally took this advice and was shocked to see that our website, while offering free shipping on gift cards, did not do so clearly. We are fixing that right now.

If you are reading this and thinking that purchases through your website are not that big a part of your business and you would rather focus on the in-store experience, please, think again. The professionalism or lack of professionalism that is displayed on your store website is a direct reflection on your image. A customer having a bad or confusing experience on your website is just like that customer having a bad experience in your store. Our website analytics show us that regular in-store customers are using our site quite frequently, often just to gather information (dates and times of events, on-hand status of books, etc.) even when they are not making online purchases.

Clearly, we can all do better with our websites. Focusing on gift cards is just an easy way to start.

Robert Sindelar is managing partner of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington.