Starbucks Tries to Gild the Lily

The new metal gift card from Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) could be the biggest collectible item since the Beanie Baby, and will likely be just as valuable a year or so down the road as the plush toy is now.

Source: Starbucks

The coffee slinger started making these limited-edition cards available last year, selling them for $450 each on Gilt.com, but pre-loading them with $400 and automatically enrolling the holder in the gold level of My Starbucks Rewards that gets you a free birthday drink, a 15% off coupon at StarbucksStore.com, and a free drink or food item after collecting 12 Stars. Made out of stainless steel, the cards had a limited run of 5,000, so you can find people hawking them on eBay for thousands of dollars.

This year Starbucks made them even more exclusive, making them a rose-colored metal, and cutting their run to just 1,000 cards. But don't start looking for them on Gilt; they sold out in seconds after the offer went live (actually before then, angering lots of people who weren't privy to the pre-sales event). They're already going for as much as $2,500 on eBay, which seems like a steal considering they're five times more limited, no?

Yet other than generating some buzz for Starbucks, why bother? It's true, restaurant gift cards have become one of the most sought-after gifts to give this holiday season, with card-exchange company GiftCardRescue saying they're the second most popular cards purchased by consumers. The National Retail Federation states that 80% of shoppers intend on buying at least one this year, a 4% increase from 2012, so when you want to put the least amount of effort into buying a gift for someone, there's nothing like picking up a gift card for them.

Once again, though, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) tops the list of most-given card, a distinction it's held for three consecutive years now, but it's been a top-20 item for six years. That's not so surprising, considering the dicey state of the economy, but now Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI  ) , the owner of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Longhorn Steakhouse, has moved into the No. 2 position (up from 14 last year), and restaurant or food companies now comprise six of the top 20 slots, up one from a year ago.

On Black Friday, you were able to score a Target (NYSE: TGT  ) $100 gift card for free if you purchased a 9.7-inch iPad, and a Wal-Mart $100 gift card for buying a non-retina iPad mini.

According to the NRF, holiday shoppers will spend an average of $163.16 on gift cards in 2013, up 4% from last year's $156.86 and the highest amount in the survey's 11-year history. Total spending on gift cards will reach $29.8 billion, reflecting the survey's findings that almost 60% of people actually want to receive a gift card as a gift. Interestingly, one-in-five gift cards will be for a hot cup of joe (19%), a six percentage point increase from 2009. Starbucks itself is moving up the most-wanted rankings, going from the No. 12 slot last year to No. 4 this time around, though presumably that doesn't include its limited edition "hand-assembled" metal cards.

Although I'm not sure what hand-assembled means, it ultimately becomes little more than an overpriced piece of metal taking up space in your wallet. Like Beanie Babies, which were expected to be worth thousands of dollars down the road but today fetch little more than their original $5 value, buyers will be sorely disappointed once the realization sets in that they're paying $450 for the "privilege" of buying $400 worth of coffee.

And for those who felt bamboozled by Gilt.com's gimmick to generate web traffic, you can still go to a Starbucks and get your coffee-lover a regular gift card that will still be appreciated. They might not be seen as part of the elite kaffeeklatsch, but if their self-esteem needs that much massaging, maybe you're better off anyway spending a little more time on a gift you've actually put some thought into.

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