Last night, at about 3am, I was awoken by a strange noise. Climbing out of bed I was approached by a ghostly figure. “Who are you?” I asked. “And what are you doing in a retail technology blog-related dream?”

Last night, at about 3am, I was awoken by a strange noise. Climbing out of bed I was approached by a ghostly figure. “Who are you?” I asked. “And what are you doing in a retail technology blog-related dream?”

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past,” came the reply. “You might remember me, I’m the one everyone remembers from the film.”

“You’ve been focussed on retail technology all year, I’m here to take you on a journey to show you the effect some of your work has. You’ll need this.” He handed me a Gift Card; the familiar bit of plastic so many of us have received, often from relatives who don’t know what else to get us or bought as a panic buy at 3pm on Christmas Eve.

“Of course in my day,” said the spirit, “it was all paper-based, fixed values, printed on till rolls, faded in the sun.”

I explained to the spirit that life and technology moved on, paper-based is great but with no real-time authorisation and a lack of flexibility around topping up they don’t quite conform to today’s real-time world.

“And look what happened last year…” The spirit transported me to a room full of gold coins. “In this room there is £250,000,000. I’ve counted the lot”

Last year, £2 billion was added onto gift cards and this was the money that was never redeemed – the unused change languishing on the nation’s Gift Cards, with people too embarrassed to ask the store to take the last 47p off the card. Or the gift card you got for that shop you never go in, or the one you lost behind the sofa or the one you forgot you had….

As I listed these situations, the spirit vanished.

Turning around, I saw another spirit. “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present.” Suddenly I was presented with a whole load of data – my shopping habits, my Christmas list, my e-commerce and store transactional history, loyalty points information and a multi-brand, omnichannel solution.

“By buying a Gift Card this year,” said the spirit “you are providing the smart retailers out there with the perfect way to capture additional customer information; from a few simple Gift Card transactions you could be telling the retailer who you are, who you like enough to buy a present for and what they like to buy – you’re effectively signing your relative up for a loyalty scheme as an extra Christmas present. The really smart retailers will of course have a combined loyalty and Gift Card – why have two cards in your wallet when one will suffice, meaning the  Gift Card remains in your relative’s wallet long beyond the January sales.”

“Blimey,” I thought, “this spirit knows his stuff. The Ghost of Christmas Present is right. Throughout this year we’ve seen a number of customers doing exactly that, by bringing their  Gift Card capabilities in-house and stitching the solution into their CRM, loss prevention, POS and e-commerce systems they can really build up a picture of the customer from a single purchase. The Ghost of Christmas Past was right too. That unspent money, previously sitting with a third party supplier, is now sitting with the retailer, no longer paying a percentage of each transaction used on their  Gift Card scheme.” Online authorisation of balance, liability tracking and management and web service integration means a  Gift Card is a tender that can be used anywhere these days.

And I waited for the third spirit that tradition dictates would be along. But he never came.

The next morning however I noticed something strange on my phone. Of course! A mobile voucher – with a personalised greeting from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He had obviously learned from the other two ghosts how to do things properly, removing even the plastic from the mix, collating more CRM data (e-mail addresses and phone numbers) and suddenly having the ability to target those customers with unspent vouchers to drive them into his shop. And integration into an electronic mall scheme (linked to my e-wallet) means that if I don’t approve of the choice of shop for my mobile voucher, I can easily transfer it to a brand of my choice.

So am I a changed man following my experience with the three ghosts?

Well yes, I’ve seen the light;  Gift Cards aren’t just for those relatives you don’t know what else to buy for. They provide a key to an omnichannel shopping experience with benefits for both the customer and the retailer alike. It’s a win-win situation. 

And that’s what I’ll be telling my wife on Christmas morning.

Merry Christmas!