As the rate of growth in gift card sales slows, retailers and restaurateurs are offering gift givers more personalized ways to show they really care — even if it is with a piece of plastic.
Businesses such as Things Remembered, Hershey's hsyand FAO Schwarz let shoppers customize gift cards and products including dolls, chocolate and wine bottles.
"There was a trend for a while to make gift-giving easy and quick and to get last-minute gift cards, but that became a little bit impersonal," says Laura Evans, head of the retail practice at digital marketing agency Resource Interactive. "Retailers are really looking at ways that they can help a gift-giver become more relevant."
Among the more personal options this year:
•Personalized gift cards. Macy's m, Toys R Us, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks sbux have added gift cards this year that can be personalized with a photo or other image. Dunkin' Donuts lets people download photos or messages to get printed on cards. Target has 17 new gift card options this year — including some with lights and sounds — and one that can be personalized with a photo.
At Starbucks, gift cards come with three custom options, including one with the recipient's name and favorite coffee order. The cards are a top seller. "Customization is an inherent part of our customer relationships," says Brad Stevens, Starbucks' marketing vice president. "The technology now is such that we can produce cards on a one-off basis. It's extraordinary and allows you to build a card that's representative of your favorite drink."
•Candy. Hershey's "Build a Gift," which offers custom chocolates with personal messages on them, was such a hit this year that the company can't accept many more orders for Christmas. Current and projected orders "have consumed all of our molded-bar-decorating capacity," says Steven Roberts, general manager of The Hershey Experience, the company's direct-to-consumer division.
•Sneakers. At nikeid.com, visitors can design and personalize more than 100 shoes by choosing from hundreds of colors and styles for laces, soles, thread and shoe fabric combinations. You can even put your own name or saying on the back of the shoe.
Just in time for the holidays, Nike nke added a 500-square-foot ID design studio at its Nike Town store in Manhattan. People can book a 45-minute session with a "design consultant" and see and touch the swatches they choose for their custom creations.
Stephanie Iannotti, 23, says she'll be taking her 13-year-old brother and 21-year-old sister to New York on Sunday for them to make their own. The part-time bartender, hairdresser and college student from Havertown, Pa., made two pairs for herself last month.
"Holiday shopping can be stressful. You never know what to get them," she says. "I think they are going to love designing but also having a unique pair of sneakers that nobody else has."
The studio is booked for the holidays even with an average price of about $100 to $125. "The consumer doesn't want our Nike. They want their Nike," says Trevor Edwards, Nike's global vice president of brand marketing.
•Toys. FAO Schwarz has added three more gifts to a list of at least seven other toys that can be customized or personalized for that discerning tot: Styled by Me Barbie, Create Your Own Steiff Bear and Make Your Own Maclaren stroller.
Toys R Us says its Elmo and several other toys can be personalized to say a child's name, among other things.
"It's a backlash to the generic gift card," Ken Nisch, chairman of retail brand and design firm JGA, says of customized gifts. "It says, 'I've taken time and thought about you.' Every trend begets another often equal and opposite trend."
Things Remembered, a 600-store chain, helped popularize personalization more than 30 years ago.
The chain's new CEO, Michael Anthony, says the store will continue to distinguish itself from other retailers who offer engraving or monogramming by suggesting quotes, phrases or lines from someone's favorite movie.
Items that can be engraved or otherwise personalized range from ear buds for MP3 players to wine bottles.
"We plan to become experts in helping people create lasting memories," says Anthony, former CEO of Brookstone. "We have a huge head start."
Expect more new ways to personalize gifts after this holiday season. Hershey's, for instance, plans to introduce "Build-a-Heart" and "Build-a-Basket" for Valentine's Day and Easter.