A Publication of WTVP

I have a passing fascination with words, particularly the list that emerges at the end of each year noting words or phrases that seem to have come out of nowhere during the year.

One of my favorites from a couple years back was "perfect storm." I'll define that as when a series of events, often harmless by themselves, combine at one time to create a maelstrom. The latest perfect storm, based on two December events, is "gift cards." Make that gift cards and debit cards.

Item 1: On December 28, a letter entitled "Forget gift certificates, cash will do just fine" appears in the Journal Star. A gentleman went to Northwoods Mall to get his nieces their annual Christmas presents of mall gift certificates. He discovered mall certificates are no longer available and instead was offered a Visa gift card-for a $1.50 service charge-that didn't have to be used at the mall. He opted to give cash, which certainly didn't have to be used at the mall, in Peoria, or even in the tri-county area.

Item 2: On December 30, State Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka, sole Republican statewide office holder, and, if we were electing a new governor tomorrow (ah, to dream), the likely GOP candidate, proposes legislation to protect consumers. Protect them from what? Gift cards. Topinka's office, in a striking-a-blow-for-the-consumer stance, says, "People aren't getting what they paid for." Chamber president, in a …well, a stance, says government shouldn't be involved in the issue, although "I can understand the frustration and problems with gift cards." Ingeniously, Topinka wants to offer business a choice of either no fees, charges, or expiration dates, or else enter a bureaucratic quagmire.

If all this weren't enough, consider California and Massachusetts, which already have laws in place that make dormancy fees on gift cards and gift certificates illegal.

Do an Internet search, and you'll find newspaper articles from around the country with headlines like: "Buying gift cards? Be sure to read fine print"

For example, consider the "fine print" for a VIPGIFT VISA gift card:

o $2 processing fee deducted at time of purchase.

o $2.50 monthly maintenance fee after six months.

o $2.50 inactive service fee if unused for 12 months.

o 50-cent fee for each transaction after the first transaction.

o $15 service fee to replace lost or stolen card.

Now consider the fine print for a Nordstrom gift card:

o No expiration date.

o No usage fees.

o No maintenance fees.

o Replaced if lost or stolen.

One article reported a growing number of national retailers are eliminating inactivity fees on gift cards because of a growing consumer backlash.

I realize this makes retailers feel like someone starting a fire-everyone in the room has a suggestion on how to do it better. And none of this addresses a major purchasing influencer: Do I shop at a store that will provide a full return or one that will only allow store credit?

If the Chamber's quick response to this issue in Illinois isn't disturbing enough, consider the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which said the fees businesses pay for management of cards is a "cost of doing business" that must be passed on.

Rightly so, I guess, but consider that 61 percent of gift card recipients spend more than the value of their cards, and 10 percent of gift cards are never redeemed. Many businesses wish they had that "cost of doing business" to deal with.

There are issues aplenty in Illinois that business needs to watch and be prepared to go the mat on. This isn't one of them. IBI