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by Hometown Advantage

Sales of gift card are soaring. In 2007, U.S. shoppers spent $97 billion on gift cards, an increase of nearly 17 percent from the previous year.

For retailers, gift cards have distinct advantages. They’re far more popular than the old paper gift certificates. When redeeming them, shoppers spend an average of 1.4 times the amount on the card. Plus, about 10 percent of the total value of gift cards goes unused every year, netting retailers billions of dollars. (Some states are beginning to claim a portion of this unclaimed property.)

Unfortunately, most of the spending on gift cards is flowing to chain retailers, many of which not only sell their own cards, but market those of dozens of other chains in large gift card racks at the front of the store.

A growing number of independent retailers are offering their own gift cards now too, but the key to shifting a substantial share of this activity to the local economy may lie in developing gift cards that work at many local businesses, rather than just one.

Some local business alliances are beginning to move in this direction.

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