Who's Ahead of Pack in Digital Gift Cards? The Answer May Surprise You

Retailers don't like to think of gift cards as that last-minute desperate gift that people buy, but let's face it, we've all been there. It's an hour before the party and there's no way you're going to be able to hunt down the perfect gift so you run to a store, or better yet a drugstore or grocery store, that sells gift cards. Bam, problem solved—quickly.

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For the harried gift giver, there's also another solution: digital gift cards. Go online, hit a few buttons, and there, the gift is sent directly to the recipient's email.

Sounds simple. But a new study conducted by RSR Researchand sponsored by CashStar, a digital gifting and incentives company, suggests it's not as easy as it could be.

RSR analyzed the digital gift card offerings of the Internet Retailer Top 100online retailers and found that only 50 of the leading sites offered digital gift cards. Of the 50 that did, the offerings were spotty, as measured by RSR's criteria, and it was very surprising to see which sites succeeded and which ones did not.

Based on 20 factors RSR used, the top-ranking Web sites were: Home Depot

, CVS Caremark , Amazon.com, American Eagle Outfittersand Sears Holding.

The retailers ranking at the top of the list tended to have a few things going for them. It often was easy to find where to go on the Web site to buy a digital gift card. They tended to offer gift cards that could be customized with messages and even pictures. Some also confirmed whether a recipient received the email.

For example, CVS , which is a client of CashStar, allows consumers to pick an eGift Card backgroundor upload a personal image.

Source: CVS.com

Those customized options are important. They make the gift card seem more personal and thoughtful, not like a rushed gesture—even if it is.

Nikki Baird, an RSR Research analyst and one of the study's authors, was surprised that there were so many laggards.

Among the Web sites that did not offer digital gift cards at this time were a large electronics retailer and several brands with a "high-tech" image such as Sony Style . Even Apple , doesn't offer its customers digital gift card capabilities outside of its iTunes store.

And having a hip, tech-savvy target audience also didn't factor into a retailer's decision.

"Gift cares are such an important retail staple, yet many retailers' offerings have not yet evolved to keep up with the changing needs of today's customer," Baird said. "We were surprised that gift card offerings were often hard to find, difficult to navigate, and lacked follow-through for both the send and the recipient."

Baird sees it as "an enormous missed opportunity" for retailers. After all, it's very common for consumers to rank gift cards at the top of their wish list of most-wanted gifts.

It's also logical to think that this will become more important this holiday season. Throughout the year, online retail Web sites have been growing sales robustly, as consumers see online shopping as an easy way to save time, and sometimes money. (It's easier to budget and research prices online.)

Already, Deloitte's retail practice has said it expects retailers' online offerings could help be a factorin who succeeds and fails this holiday season.

According to CashStar CEO David Stone, who has worked with some of the companies analyzed in the study, it is possible for some companies to improve their online gift card experience in time for the holiday season.

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