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For those holiday shoppers who are out of gift ideas and out of time, The Mall in Columbia has introduced a new automated option for purchasing mall gift cards on the fly.

The new "Shop Etc. Gift Card Kiosk," located near the holiday poinsettia tree and the Lucky Brand Jeans store on the mall's lower level, allows customers to use a touch-screen monitor to purchase six gift cards at a time totaling up to $500 using a credit card, the mall announced Wednesday, Dec. 14.

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It also allows customers to join "The Club," an email newsletter that offers retailer discounts and news about mall activities to registered shoppers.

"It's a really great email list to get involved in, because you'll get really great discounts that aren't available to the general public," said Michelle Jose, the mall's marketing manager.

Previously, shoppers who wanted to purchase mall gift cards had to do so at the nearby customer services desk, where lines can sometimes build up, especially during the holidays, Jose said.

"Ultimately, this was just meant to offer another avenue for our shoppers," Jose said, noting a total of 18 million people shop at the mall each year. "We wanted to give them a positive experience with as little hassle as possible."

Jose said the touch-screen kiosk is easy to use, especially among Howard County's many "tech-savvy customers."

One of those customers Wednesday was Tuleen Alam, of Owings Mills, who noticed an advertisement of the new kiosk in the mall's food court and decided to purchase a gift card as part of her holiday shopping.

The gift card, which can be used anywhere American Express Cards are accepted, should be a safe bet for a gift, no matter who the recipient, Alam said.

"You can't go too wrong," she said. "Look at all those stores. If none of those satisfy you, you're on your own."

Alam said she is almost finished her own holiday shopping, but will be back at the mall closer to Christmas — when things get really hectic — just to sit with a coffee and watch all the other shoppers rush about.

"I know it sounds like I'm gloating, but I'm not," she said, just after slipping a $40 gift card into her purse. "Watching the frenzy for some reason calms me down."

While there was "a little bit of a rush" to get the kiosk set up for the holiday season, it will remain at the mall permanently, Jose said.

"We'll see how it goes," she said.

Gift cards of larger amounts can still be purchased at the customer services desk.

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