When Were Gift Cards Invented? A History Through 2024

Our Crash Course in Everybody’s Favorite Versatile, All-Occasion Gift: The Humble Gift Card! Do You Know How It Has Evolved?

Gift cards are a pretty ubiquitous product these days, available on almost every website or at your local grocery store. But where did gift cards come from? How long have they been around?

If you’ve ever wondered about the history of those handy little plastic or digital gifts, we’ve got you covered. We’re taking a deep dive into gift card history to answer all of your most burning questions, including:

  • When were gift cards invented? Were they around in the 80s/90s/00s?
  • How have gift cards evolved since they were first invented?
  • What makes gift cards so special compared to other gifts?

We’re digging into all of this and more – so let’s get started!

arcade in the 80s
People sometimes wonder if gift cards were around when they or their parents or even their grandparents were kids. Perhaps surprisingly, gift cards and gift certificates weren’t really around in the era of hair metal and arcades.

Did they have gift cards in the 80s?

Kind of. Gift cards as we know them today haven’t been around all that long in the grand scheme of things, but gift certificates have been around for a while. In the 1980s, the best known gift certificate was the McDonald’s gift certificate program, which – fun fact! – is still around today in the form it has evolved into, physical and digital Arch cards.

Okay, well when did gift certificates start?

Glad you asked! Major department stores launched gift certificates clear back in the 1930s. Printed on paper, they were the first cash equivalent certificates available. However, gift certificates weren’t widely available. Clerks were instructed to hide the hot new items under the counters and only hand them over to select customers… and only upon request.

By the time color printers and copiers became available in the 1970s, gift certificates fell out of favor. The paper certificates were just too easy to counterfeit.

Luckily, by the time gift cards rolled around, getting your hands on one was much more accessible.

woman purchasing clothes with a gift card at a high end store
Department stores and luxury brands didn’t go all out on marketing gift certificates and gift cards to keep them exclusive – but thanks to Blockbuster, gift cards are one of the most popular gifts and a multi-million dollar industry.

What was the first gift card?

To talk about the very first gift card – at least the way we think of gift cards – we have to go back to a simpler time. A time when Kate Moss popularized the “model off duty” look and Seinfeld, Super Bowl XXVIII, and Home Improvement were some of the highest rated programs on television. That’s right, we’re talking about 1994.

It was the year that Tonya Harding sabotaged fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. It was the year that the world lost iconic grunge singer Kurt Cobain. It was the year that charges against OJ Simspon started to form. And it was the year that the first magnetic strip gift card was made available.

But the first gift card has nothing to do with Nirvana or the Winter Olympics in Norway.

The company that released the first gift card was Neiman Marcus, although much like their department store predecessors, they didn’t exactly advertise the new technology. So it comes as no surprise that gift cards didn’t take off until Blockbuster launched – and advertised – their own. And with the company’s gift card success, other brands quickly followed suit.

Soon, gift cards were skyrocketing in popularity, available not only directly from vendors but at grocery stores and pharmacies too. It seemed like all of a sudden, people couldn’t wait to get their hands on a gift card.

In addition to making luxurious craft coffee drinks more accessible than ever before, Starbucks has experimented with eco-friendly gift cards – like ones made from alternative materials and notably pioneering the reusable gift card.

When did reusable cards come onto the scene?

It’s no secret that people love their Starbucks. With craft coffee shops popping up on what seemed like every street corner, the coffee giant was looking for ways to grow. When they released their first gift cards in November 2001, just ahead of the holiday shopping season, it quickly became one of the hottest gifts of the year.

What set them apart? Each gift card came with a tiny owner's manual. Calling the toll-free number on the back of the card, patrons would have discovered the Starbucks cards’ not-so-secret talent: that funds could be reloaded onto the card for repeat use.

Digital and physical Starbucks gift cards have retained this loadability today. Plus, they’ve also been released in over 1000 designs in their 20+ year history, including fun shapes, recycled materials, and bedecked in Swarovski crystals.

Today, there are several other reloadable and prepaid gift card options, including:

  • Mastercard
  • Visa
  • American Express

And more.

shopper with bags
Gift cards and gift vouchers are sometimes used as interchangeable terms, but any serious shopper can tell you that there are actually some pretty important differences between these two ways of gifting a balance for a certain brand.

What is the difference between a gift card and a gift voucher?

At first glance, gift cards and gift vouchers seem pretty similar. Both typically have a value that shoppers can apply to their purchases from a certain brand. Both have physical and digital forms. But there are a few key differences that separate the two.

Gift cards hold a specific cash value. They can be used in any of a company’s retail stores or online. They also have a unique identification number, barcode, and magnetic strip for security.

Gift vouchers typically describe old school gift certificates. They are commonly used for experiences, like a free spa treatment or a kayaking day tour. And whereas gift cards can be used at any location for the qualifying brand, gift vouchers are typically only redeemable at one specific establishment.

But gift cards aren’t the latest step in the evolution of gift giving.

GiftYa is the next generation of gift cards. Send it to their text messages or email, and enjoy new ways of customizing gift cards to thousands of local and national brands. Plus, your recipient has several easy ways to redeem the gift too.

Get to Know GiftYa, the Next Evolution of the Gift Card

Gift cards sometimes get critiqued – they’re difficult to remember when you head out to the shops, they’re easy to lose, they’re bad for the environment. They’re an impersonal gift. So it would stand to reason that the next iteration of the gift card would solve those problems…

And GiftYa does.

The convenient e-gift cards can be personalized and sent in just a few clicks. Choose immediate delivery or schedule it in advance – whether it's a last minute gift or a many minutes out gift, it’s sure to be a hit. You can choose from an expert created design to “wrap” the gift, or use your own photo or video for a personal touch. Add a gift message, and it’s ready to go – right to their email or text inbox.

But not only is GiftYa convenient for senders, it’s convenient for recipients, too. Giftees can redeem their balance from the GiftYa app or connect it to a credit card they carry with them every day anyway. Translation? Goodbye, forgetting to use their gift card! The balance will automatically be put toward qualifying purchases until it’s used up.

Plus, if they don’t totally love the merchant  you chose for them, they can swap it for any of the other thousands of local and national brands in the GiftYa catalog. It’s a guarantee they’ll love the gift you get them.

GiftYa balances can also be swapped for a physical Visa gift card mailed to their door, cash out to a bank account using Zelle, or be regifted to a loved one.

So as a quick recap, GiftYa solves all of the gripes people have with physical gift cards:

❌ It’s an impersonal or thoughtless gift → GiftYas are easily customized ✅

❌ They might not like the vendor → GiftYa makes it easy to swap or exchange ✅

❌ All that plastic is bad for the environment → GiftYa is totally digital ✅

❌ Gift cards are easy to lose or forget → Redeem from your phone or credit card ✅

Not fast enough for a last minute gift → Send instantly or schedule in advance ✅

With modern features like being able to easily customize and send gift cards and more ways to redeem than ever before, it’s no wonder that gift cards are at the top of the wish list for millions of Americans around the nation.

Do people actually want to get gift cards?

Short answer: Yes!!

Long answer: Absolutely yes!

According to a survey by the National Retail Association (NRA), people have enough knick knacks. Instead of giving them stuff you aren’t sure that they’ll like, get them the thing that’s at the very top (yep, in the number one spot) on the list for 54% of American adults. Yes, gift cards are that popular!

Gift cards aren’t an almost $30 million industry for no reason – it’s one gift people are excited to unwrap.

How do businesses feel about gift cards?

Supporting small business and trying to #shopLocal and hitting the stores on Small Business Saturday. Making sure the entrepreneurs in your community are able to keep their doors open is an all-year endeavor. And with over 32 million independent stores battling it out with giant retailers like Walmart and Amazon, those mom and pop shops can use all the help they can get,

That’s why we think that gift cards are the best gift – for givers, receivers, and businesses as well.

Buying a gift card gives your favorite local shops a much needed cash boost today. Since they have those funds in hand, they can put it toward paying bills, getting the word out about their business, or supporting employees. In short, gift cards a great for businesses – big and especially small!

There are tons of benefits to giving gift cards – whether you’re a kid or a grown up.

Why give a gift card?

Gift cards make a great gift for many reasons. Your recipient can save the gift for a rainy day if they want to. They support small businesses. They guarantee your loved one gets something they’ll be excited about. But they’re also helpful for security reasons, too.

More shopping means more opportunities for your credit or debit card to be compromised, which is a risk some people just aren’t willing to take. So whether they want to buy that really cool lamp or super cute skirt from the questionable website the social media algorithm served them or just want to take extra precautions during big shopping seasons that see lots of credit card skimming and scams, a gift card is a great way to protect their bank account.

Because skimmers aren’t always easy to spot. Sure, some fishy (or should we say, phishy?) websites are obviously fake, but some are excellent imitations of legitimate stores. Skimmers can also compromise legitimate websites or create fraudulent Google or social media ads. Scary, right?

And beyond avoiding unknown links, setting up multi-factor authentication on important accounts, and watching financial statements for anything that doesn’t look right, shoppers can also protect their accounts by using a gift card to shop instead. After all, they can’t access the accounts connected to a card you don’t use for your purchase.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of gift card history.

Ready to give a gift card to someone you care about? Be sure to check out the GiftYa catalog to find the perfect present for everyone on your list. We’re so excited to share the latest evolution of the gift card with you – happy shopping!

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Trae Bodge

Trae Bodge is the shopping expert here at GiftYa. Trae helps people find the best deals and ideas on popular new items to purchase.

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