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Restaurants try to make gift cards personal

Restaurants try to make gift cards personal

Retailers and marketers have been complaining that holiday gift cards, often bought at the last minute for hard-to-please friends or relatives, are the “new fruitcake.” But several restaurant brands are sprucing up the stocking stuffers by allowing customization.

An October study from Consumer Reports showed a general lack of enthusiasm for receiving gift cards. Of American consumers surveyed, 46 percent said they planned on buying a gift card but only 15 percent wanted to receive one. Noodles & Company, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks are among the restaurant companies trying to help customers rediscover the joy of giving gift cards by requiring a little more effort from shoppers.

Noodles, the Broomfield, Colo.-based chain of 225 restaurants, launched the Lunch Buddy Gift Card, which carries the tagline "Have lunch with me any time," and can be personalized with a photo of the giver or recipient. Noodles also supplies small easels that customers may use to prop up their gift cards at the table, so that they may look upon a friend's image on the card even when they have to dine alone.

"Overall, the gift card's becoming a little commoditized, and there's a sea of sameness with them, so we thought, ÔLet's do something different and fun,'" said Jill Preston, Noodles' director of communications. "We hope people have a lot of fun with it."

The company was inspired to shake up the practice of giving gift cards, Preston said, "because, you know what? They're still popular." With the Lunch Buddy Card serving as a portable picture of friends and loved ones, however, recipients hopefully will keep the card and thus keep Noodles & Company top of mind, she added.

"It's fun to be able to prop your gift card up on your desk and see a loved one looking back at you," Preston said. "We want people to keep these and reload them. It's a gift that keeps on giving, and it's not something you just throw away, because it's a picture of somebody."

Gift givers can visit the Lunch Buddy Support Center microsite,, to upload a photo and resize it to fit the gift card, choose a "stand-in" from Noodles' online gallery of lunch buddies, send an online invitation to meet for lunch, or purchase $20 Lunch Buddy Gift Cards. The company also will roll out a contest later this month where two buddies could win a grand prize of Noodles & Company meals for a year.

Dunkin' Donuts, the coffee and doughnut chain of more than 8,800 units worldwide, also is offering customizable gift cards this year. The Dunkin' Donuts Card can be purchased online or in any Dunkin' location, for any amount between $2 and $200. Guests can personalize the cards with photos or customized messages at the Canton, Mass.-based chain's website.

In addition, the company will replace lost or stolen gift cards free of charge if they are registered online. The custom card costs $4.50 plus the value of the gift.

Starbucks also allows customers to personalize gift cards online. For a $4 fee, shoppers can choose from several different backgrounds, create their own custom messages, and load the card with $15, $25, $50 or $100. Back in October, the Seattle-based chain of more than 16,000 coffeehouses said it would combine separate loyalty programs into one streamlined My Starbucks Rewards card, which would not impose an annual fee and would offer customized rewards that increased with more frequent visits.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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