Caveat emptor: Irish Times view on the gift voucher industry
For the fourth time in less than a decade, plans to impose rules on a hugely profitable sector have stalled
Worth about €600 million annually, the Irish gift voucher industry remains broadly unregulated with retailers, service providers and dedicated gift card companies largely free to do as they please.
There is nothing to stop businesses imposing expiry limits of six months or less on vouchers, which explains – at least in part – why as many as 20 per cent of those sold go unclaimed. People who delay using their vouchers can also pay the price with many companies charging so-called maintenance fees if gift cards remain dormant for a period of time determined by the retailers or voucher company themselves.
It also remains legal for companies to refuse to give change – even in voucher form – should a consumer make a purchase that is not to the full value of a voucher used. And, as Irish Times consumer affairs correspondent Conor Pope has reported, companies often bury their most ludicrous terms and conditions in the small print where they stay hidden until it is time to use them against a consumer’s best interests.
It was in this context last June that Minister for Enterprise Heather Humphreys announced plans to regulate the sector. Under a draft Bill approved by Cabinet, five-year expiry limits would become mandatory and maintenance fees would be abolished. The Minister expressed hope that her voucher Bill would be in place before Christmas. But it won’t and, for the fourth time in less than a decade, plans to impose rules on a hugely profitable sector have stalled in the face of lobbying from vested interests.
In the absence of legislation consumers may feel impotent but, ultimately, they hold the power to circumvent the most spurious rules through one simple act. Anyone who gets a gift voucher this Christmas should spend it quickly. By doing so, they can render irrelevant the most miserable terms and conditions.
In the meantime the Minister should commit to advancing her consumer-friendly agenda to end the free-for-all. Perhaps in time for next Christmas?