By Sharon Epperson Correspondent
CNBC
updated 12/16/2005 4:17:18 PM ET 2005-12-16T21:17:18

It’s the last full shopping weekend before Christmas, and gift cards are a big item again this year. But how are those cards impacting the retail sector and consumers?

Shoppers have been busy snapping up gift cards. In fact, the National Retail Federation expects consumers to spend nearly $18.5 billion on gift cards this holiday shopping season — that’s almost a 7 percent increase over last year.

A gift card is often thought to be a safe bet, and maybe even better than cold hard cash. And they’re a great fallback plan if you don’t know what to buy someone for the holidays.

They’re also changing the way many people go shopping.

Consumers that purchase gift cards will visit fewer stores, buy less actual merchandise and do more shopping online according to an American Express survey.

Gift cards from Visa, American Express and MasterCard — which can be used at any retailer — are among the most popular gift cards this holiday season. Cards for specific products, like iTunes downloads, dinner at The Olive Garden or filling up your gas tank are also top choices according to Hitwise, which provides daily rankings of popular Web sites.

“This week will be the peak for searches on gift cards, and I think what that tells us is gift cards online are the perfect solution for the procrastinator in all of us,” said Bill Tancer, GM of Worldwide research at Hitwise. “A lot of these companies provide these cards via e-mail to the recipients.”

Some retailers are getting creative: Multi-chain retailers, like the Gap, Banana Republic, or Old Navy allow cards that are bought on any of their three brands to be used across their brands.

Promotions like that can help lure customers in the door, but gift cards actually count as a liability for retailers until a purchase is made, and not as a sale. So they want consumers to get in the store quickly. So if you forget you’ve received one and then try to use it a few months or a year later, it could cost you.

Some gift cards are loaded with all types of fees. There are activation fees, and also monthly maintenance fees. There are sometimes even fees if you call a customer service number.

So it pays to read the fine print. Some states prohibit expiration dates on gift cards, but the laws can vary. And even in states with tough consumer protection laws, like California, those protection laws don’t always apply to all gift cards available to consumers.

© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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