Accounting for Gift Cards: An Emerging Issue for Retailers and Auditors

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Black Friday, so called because it kicks off the holiday shopping season that retailers hope will bring the $4.7 trillion industry into the black, is just weeks away. But last year, continuing a growing trend, more shoppers chose to purchase gift cards rather than merchandise, skewing some sales reports. This article examines the varying accounting treatments for gift card sales and their subsequent redemption patterns.

The National Retail Federation said 2006 holiday sales (those occurring in November and December) of gift cards were $27.8 billion. Overall holiday sales were $663 billion, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Independent financial services research firms have estimated holiday gift card sales were as much as $75 billion. In fact, no one really knows the aggregate effect of gift card transactions because retailers rarely provide separate information on gift card sales and redemptions.

The accounting for gift card sales presents an emerging reporting dilemma for retailers. Unresolved issues stemming from the reporting treatment of gift card sales and "breakage" (gift cards that consumers fail to redeem) potentially encroach upon several accounting regulations, including standards for revenue recognition and the recognition of special items. In practice, the reporting of gift card sales and breakage among retailers varies significantly and it is unclear what future action, if any, standard-setters and regulators will take toward unifying the range of practices.

ADVANTAGES TO SELLERS

Gift cards offer buyers and gift recipients a variety of product choices but restrict those choices to a single or limited number of retail service providers. This consumer-merchant trade-off provides plenty of economic justification for retailers to offer, and even to promote, gift card sales, because retailers stand to derive several potential economic benefits.

Increased sales. The gift card's product selection option can persuade indecisive buyers to make purchases they might not otherwise make. Moreover, a gift card may induce additional sales when the card is redeemed. The predetermined, fixed gift cam value essentially translates into a minimum purchase guarantee upon redemption. However, the lumpiness of the pricing of retail items makes it likely that the recipient will spend additional money to buy an item of greater value, as opposed to leaving a balance on the card.

Marketing opportunities. When gift cards are used as a gift, they generate marketing benefits by offering the retailer two customer contacts and two sales opportunities, as opposed to only one. Gift card transactions also generate incremental information that the company may be able to translate into additional future period sales through marketing and promotional efforts.

Cash flow and inventory management. Benefits to retailers are not limited to customer effects. They are realized through other aspects of the retail operation. For example, the delay in the transfer of goods and services provides significant and obvious operating cash flow benefits to the business. This delay also provides inventory management benefits. Since gift cards are sold during the holiday shopping season and frequently redeemed during off-seasonal periods, businesses may then provide greater inventory smoothing than would otherwise be possible. Gift cards can also reduce general operating expenses.

Bottom line. Perhaps the greatest benefit to retailers--and one that has distinct accounting implications--is that historical consumer behavior trends show that a portion of many gift card purchases will never be redeemed. The retail and banking industries recognize the tendency of consumers to leave gift card balances unused and refer to the unspent balance of a gift card as breakage. Reported estimates of breakage by consumer research groups vary from 10% to 19%. Even by conservative estimates, gift card breakage has the potential to significantly influence many companies' bottom lines. …