Thursday, June 13, 2013

What's In The Cards

Gift cards. Inside greeting cards. Both can be acquired at my local grocery store while I'm getting milk and eggs and bratwurst. (Hey it's grilling season.)

I passed two giant displays - one free standing and the other on an end cap - when I went to the store the other day and it got me thinking (again) that gift cards have made us lazy. This is, of course, an anecdotal and unscientific conclusion but I think it may be indicative of larger issues.

Retail stores such as my local grocer try to be one-stop shops for us. They contain not just the staples of a healthy diet but also a coffee shop, a bank, a dry cleaner, a florist, a pharmacy and more. They used to contain video rentals (first VHS then DVD) but that has moved to a red kiosk on the outside of the store where lines can form blocking the sidewalk just outside the entrance. People park their cars three feet from the red kiosk, leave the engine running and look at the screen for five minutes before making their choice. Sometimes they consult their three or four children as to what to purchase.

I've long held that the explosion of the Internet has made American society as a whole - with some exceptions - lazy.

The idea that you can get everything you need at the grocery store is ludicrous. Of course you can get beer, but in Kansas we still have boutique liquor stores that aren't allowed to sell openers or mixers. Downtowns have a variety of stores, restaurants and bars in a tightly compressed area and my downtown has a much higher percentage of bars than boutiques in its five block long and three block wide area. In all of that space there are three bookstores and the public library. I can't count the number of bars.

My grocery store, of course, has some books and magazines but that section is shrinking every year. It was, in fact, at the grocery store that I found the best SF anthology I've ever read. And the last new book I bought I picked up at the independent bookseller downtown. I go downtown to get my coffee beans, too, even though I could buy some at the grocery store. Or I could order them from somewhere on the Internet and have them delivered right to the house, which would not require me to go anywhere.

When I shopped the video sections of the grocery store, I would share the space with people and sometimes we would talk about a particular film and I might pick something that a stranger recommended. I can do that on the Internet, too, but that personal interaction meant something different, felt like a connection that was real. Sometimes I would run into that person again at the store and we'd chat about the movies. Sometimes not.

Now, in my grocery store, there are gift cards for everything from coffee to internet auction sites. My son would rather have gift cards than anything else. That way he can surf the 'net and buy exactly what he wants.

But giving a gift used to be something personal. A giver would consider what the receiver liked, what she might really want, and then go shopping in a mall or downtown. Sometimes the gift wasn't exactly right but the thought was there. "It's the thought that counts."

So it seems to me that when I ask someone what they'd like to have for a gift and the response is "oh, just a gift card to _________" what I'm being told is "you don't know me well enough to give me what I really want". I know it's not necessarily that, but sometimes that's how it feels. I like gift cards for things I can't go to boutique stores in my area for. There used to be half a dozen record stores in my town. Now there's two, one downtown and the other out south. I've bought a couple ebooks for my Kindle app on the iPad but only because they were digital only releases.

Who doesn't like getting gifts? The best part is when you get a gift and it's something you can actually use, isn't it? Isn't it more exciting to rip the bow and ribbon off a gift, tear into the paper and open the box and find exactly what you wanted?

And all it takes is giving someone a list of things you want and then waiting for them to give it to you. I told my son last January what I wanted for Father's Day. He went out and bought it (I'm pretty sure he did, I won't KNOW until I open it next weekend) and has had it ready to go ever since. Which I think is cool. I am disappointed when Christmas comes and all it is is a gift card exchange. There's no thought, no effort in the giving.

So when that's the case, what good is it? Gift cards in greeting cards bought at the grocery store the night before. That's not thoughtful giving.

That's lazy.