Selling Gift Certificates: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“I’d like to surprise my wife with a family portrait for Mother’s Day. Do you offer gift certificates?”

“My friend is having a baby and a few of us want to chip in for newborn photos. Can we do a gift certificate for her session fee?”

“My friend loves the photos you did for my family last year! I’d like to get her a $100 gift certificate -- do you offer those?”

If someone asks for a gift certificate, you say yes -- obviously, right? After all, they’re handing you money and helping you lock in a new client. But it’s actually not that easy. (If you’ve ever sold one, you may be nodding your head in agreement right about now.) Gift certificates can cause unnecessary stress and even damage your reputation.

Here’s what you need to know before you decide to offer them.


THE GOOD:

  • It’s a moneymaker, plain and simple. Gift certificates are a great source of last-minute income -- especially right before any major holidays, when you need the extra cash and they need a thoughtful gift. Even if your schedule is already jam-packed, you can sell them now and fulfill them later when things settle down.
  • It gives your clients a way to share the love. They may rave about you to their friends every chance they get, but a gift certificate seals the deal. It’s basically a guaranteed booking, because no one’s going to throw money in the trash.

THE BAD:

  • Gift certificates add a bunch of little tiny tasks to your to-do list. First, there’s the design -- can you create one certificate that appeals to every genre you serve? Can you squeeze all the fine print on there without looking like an ad for a car dealership? Once you’ve ordered them, you’ll need to create a log to track what you’ve sold, to whom, the amount, and the date. It’s not a huge deal, but most photographers don’t have a surplus of spare time.
  • Clients can buy low and sell high. Say you sell a gift certificate for a session fee at your current price of $150. Two years later, you’ve honed your work, cemented your reputation, and doubled your session fee. Now the recipient is ready to book, and you have to squeeze them into your schedule and bump someone who would’ve spent $300 on the same service.
  • You may be thinking, “I’ll just make it expire in six months so I can’t get burned down the road.” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Every state has its own laws about gift cards and gift certificates. (You can click here to check yours.) Depending on your state, and whether you issue a certificate or a stored-value card, you may not be able to set an expiration date less than two years from the date it’s issued…or ever.
  • In-person sales? Forget it. Most likely, the recipient sees the gift certificate as a gift, not as a coupon. (If you got a $25 gift card to a shoe store, would you think, “Great, I can finally afford those $200 boots”? Probably not.) The recipient might spring for a few extra prints or their favorite digital file, but it’s unlikely they’ll spend hundreds to upgrade their gift to a deluxe package.

THE UGLY:

  • Style is subjective. You know when someone buys you a shirt for your birthday, and you’re like, “Oh…um…that’s nice”? It’s rare that someone can pin down your unique taste. The same applies when someone tries to choose a photographer for a friend. When someone hires you, you know they’ve seen your photos and love your style. You don’t have that same connection with a random gift recipient. If your style doesn’t mesh with theirs (“These are all off-center! We’re barely looking at the camera in any of them!”), you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do you reshoot? Refund? Or just let them be unhappy with their gift?
  • The recipient has an unspoken agreement with you -- but no contract. You’ve committed to working together, but they haven’t agreed to any of your policies. And once you start enforcing those policies, problems can quickly arise. Maybe they thought a session fee included the digitals. Maybe they think $40 is an insane price for an 8x10. They may accuse you of “ripping them off” or “holding the photos hostage.” Is it fair? No. Is it true? No. Does it happen? Yes.
  • When the aforementioned person is unhappy with your policies, whom do you think they’ll complain to first? Probably the person who gave them the gift certificate. Suddenly your longtime client is put in a super-awkward position, and they could end up resenting you for it.

THE FIX:

There are a few things you can do to minimize the risk of gift certificates causing problems.

  • Issue cards for monetary value, not for specific products or services. (This also takes away any potential confusion over what, exactly, a “session fee” includes.)
  • While expiration dates are subject to state laws, you can always offer a small discount if they redeem within a certain time frame.
  • If there are any policies or limitations you want to enforce -- can it be used on extended families? can it be applied to discounted mini-sessions? are travel fees included? -- make sure they’re written clearly on the certificate.
  • Consider limiting gift certificates to clients who are already on the books. For example, if someone booked their wedding through you, their guests can buy a gift certificate towards a canvas print, but they can’t buy them a session.

The take-away:  the decision to sell gift certificates requires some thought and planning and needs to be weighed against your business model.  Should you decide to sell them, you can consider yourself armed with the information you need to be successful.  So the next time you are approached with the question, “Do you sell gift certificates?,” you’ll be able to answer confidently and professionally.  And if you’re looking for beautifully designed gift certificates, Design Aglow has you covered.  Check out our complete line here.


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