Giant Food, the Baltimore area's biggest grocer, has sold other retailers' cards for more than a decade. Giants now have an assortment of more than 100 brands, including iTunes, restaurants, stores and general-use cards. Most of Giant's gift card sales occur during the five weeks leading up to Dec. 25, with general-use cards from American Express, MasterCard and Visa the most popular, said Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman.

"Giant continues to grow the assortment of gift cards based on consumer demand," Miller said.

The future likely will bring more gift-card buying, much of it in virtual or digital cards that can be sent, stored and used electronically, online or through mobile devices, experts said. Digital cards now represent a small portion of the market

"We believe strongly that gift cards are going to go digital," said Plastic Jungle's Mackenzie. "People say there always will be physical cards because people want to hand each other a gift, but it is our belief that as the market matures, the benefits of being able to use digital cards will overcome being able to hand someone plastic."

Those benefits include immediacy of use, not having to wait for a card to be mailed and not needing go out to buy one, she said.

"You'll be able to keep a gift card in your digital wallet," Lombana said. "Instead of keeping track of a gift card … you'll be able to actually store a gift card in a wallet in the 'cloud' and have it accessible on your smartphone."

That's possible now for Starbucks card holders, who can enter a gift card code into a Starbucks app on their mobile phones, she said.

Another change on the horizon could be more scrutiny from regulators as the gift-card market continues to grow — along with opportunities for fraud, Riley said.

Last week, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler warned Maryland consumers about a text message scam telling recipients they won a gift card to a well-known store, typically for $500 or $1,000. The scam sends the recipient to a website to enter personal information, which could lead to identity theft.

Riley said consumers need to know that gift cards don't come with the same protections as credit and debit cards. Consumers are out of luck if they lose a card, if a sales receipt for a card shows a higher amount than that loaded on the card or if a merchant goes out of business.

"The best thing to do with a gift card when you get it is use it," Riley said. "They were never intended to be a saving product."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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