I have been meaning to write this post for over a year, but now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, it feels like small businesses could use the extra income potential of online gift vouchers more than ever. You don’t need to have an e-commerce store, or even a website to be able to take online payments for offline goods and services.
Why would I want to sell gift cards online? What are the benefits?
A great way to build your customer base
Whether you sell goods or services, at a physical location or exclusively online, if those goods or services could potentially be given as gifts, then why not make it as easy as possible for people to do so? You probably already know that it’s easier to sell to your existing customers than it is to acquire new ones? If you encourage them to share their loyalty to you with their friends and family, everyone wins – they feel good about supporting you, and about letting their friends in on their little secret; the friends get to discover your great product or service; and you get not just the extra revenue from the original customer, but a brand new customer too – and a loyal one because they were introduced by a trusted friend.
Existing customers will thank you, and so will the environment!
Buying gifts can be a gruelling task – it can be hard to guess what somebody would really appreciate, and we may end up, under pressure, buying something we don’t really feel good about. The chances are, neither will the recipient love it, and the environment won’t thank you either! By gifting a voucher to use against the products or services of a small business, everyone wins – the buyer feels good about their purchase, the receiver is given some choice, a small business gets extra income and a new customer, and nothing ends up in landfill.
Take payment now for work that can be done later
This benefit of selling vouchers online has taken on a whole new significance during the COVID-19 crisis, where so many businesses have been forced to close and have lost all of their income stream, but even under normal circumstances, it is a significant benefit. Many businesses have wild peaks of activity in the run up to Christmas, but run well below capacity for the rest of the year. By providing gift cards, you may not do much to even our the cashflow, but those vouchers can be used at a later date, relieving the pressure on your time and product inventory at peak times.
Who can sell gift cards online? What if my business is tiny? What if I don’t even have a website?
Absolutely anyone can make use of the concept of selling gift vouchers online, there is a solution for every budget and every situation. You don’t need to have a website, and it needn’t cost you anything at all until you are making sales. On the other hand, if you see the sale of gift cards as a significant part of your business, a little investment can really help to provide the best experience for your customers.
Three ways to sell gift cards online
1. Use a third party service that is dedicated to the task
This will be the best solution for many small businesses – certainly for those who do not have their own website, but also for many who do, but who don’t have the skill or budget to adapt an existing website to sell vouchers. There are lots of new providers of this sort of service, and some who specialise in particular industries, such as hospitality or beauty, so it would be worth doing some research to pick the right one for your needs. My only personal experience is with Voucher Connect, who have created an attractive, user-friendly system for both merchants and customers, and who charge on a commission basis, so there are no fees if you don’t make any sales.
- Little or no upfront or continued financial investment required.
- You may be able to benefit from existing traffic to the platform as well as being able to drive traffic to your particular corner of the platform, allowing you to reach a wider market than you could with your own website.
- Support available from platform provider.
- Instant delivery of e-voucher to purchaser, or their nominated recipient.
- All security and technical functionality is taken care of by the platform.
- There may be inadequate control over the presentation of your products and brand and communication with customers.
- May be perceived by customer as amateurish.
- Platform takes a cut of sales.
Case study – La Méridienne
During the COVID-19 crisis, our wonderful local bookshop, La Méridienne, has been forced to close and has signed up to Petits Commerces, to allow their customers to buy vouchers to spend when they reopen. As far as I know, this functionality has been set up in response to the COVID-19 crisis, so I don’t know if it will be a longterm solution, but if yours is a small business, based in France, it may work well for you now.
The system used by Petits Commerces actually comes under the next section – creating a low tech system on your own website. They are selling very simple “products” using a Shopify website. Customers then print out their email receipts as proof of purchase and Petits Commerces release funds to their individual merchants on a regular basis. This is an example of simple a system that does the job in a crisis, but without providing a branded or very elegant experience for the customer, and with what must be a great deal of admin overhead for Petits Commerces.
2. Create a low-tech system on your own website
This can be done in any number of ways – the only limit is your creativity – but essentially involves the following:
- Find a way to advertise the fact that you sell vouchers
- Find a way to receive payments
- Find a way to deliver either a physical or electronic voucher to the buyer
If you already have an e-commerce enabled website, such as WordPress with Woocommerce or Shopify, or are prepared to upgrade a Wix website, for example, to add payments, you can create simple products and call them vouchers. In this case, you will already have a way of displaying your products, and of receiving payment, so your only challenge is to create and deliver the vouchers. And this is the major drawback of this method. You lose benefit of the immediate delivery of a beautiful voucher that either a third party service, or a specialised system of your own would provide, and are also required to manually generate your own vouchers and maintain a system so that you know when they have been redeemed.
- Little or no upfront or continued financial investment required if you do it all yourself.
- Minimal ongoing fees (you will still pay payment gateway fees).
- Full control over the presentation of the gift vouchers and all communication with customers.
- All security and technical functionality is your responsibility!
- May still be perceived by customer as amateurish, since it is not a streamlined process.
- Admin overhead involved in creating and sending vouchers.
- Delivery of vouchers is not instantaneous.
Case Study – Hudnalls Hideout Treehouse
Sarah added a simple gift voucher product to The Hudnall’s Hideout WordPress website using Woocommerce to allow people to buy vouchers for a stay in the stunning tree house. Sarah created the whole website herself, as well as having set up countless WordPress sites for her clients, so while she is not technically a web designer, she was certainly not without a good familiarity with her tools.
Customers add multiples of the £50 voucher product to their cart, up to the value they wish to gift, make their payment and receive the usual order confirmation by email. Sarah then posts or emails them their voucher. This system allows for the creation of a completely customised voucher, and for a personal exchange with the purchaser, but does not allow instant delivery, if for example, it is a last minute gift.
3. Sell gift cards on your own website using a purpose built system
This system gives you the best features of both of the above – the functionality of the third party provider, with the fine grain control of using your own website, though at an upfront and/or ongoing financial cost and always with some risk to security and functionality. The main difference between this method and creating a low-tech system on your own website, is that the special technical requirements of the sale of gift cards are built in to the website functionality. As with both of the above methods, there are many options available here. If you have a very substantial budget, you may be able to employ a developer to create something completely bespoke for you, but I will share my experience with the systems I have created, which use WordPress with Woocommerce and a commercial voucher plug-in.
I have set up gift voucher sales websites for several clients, and in the process, have found no free plug-ins with sufficient support or functionality, and some very poor commercial ones too. This is hard won experience as the consequence for clients of dysfunctional e-commerce systems can be very bad PR. In the end, I resolved only to use plug-ins that are endorsed by Woocommerce because this gives some guarantee of the quality of the plug-in and a higher likelihood that the developers will be committed to maintain its compatibility with Woocommerce. The most painful experiences I have had, including with commercial plug-ins, is when, after much time invested in their testing and setup, they have initially worked, and have then broken when they have not been adequately maintained by their developers. Fortunately Woocommerce now has a system that provides alerts as to the compatibility of dependent plug-ins, allowing you to delay upgrading if they are not yet ready. This can avoid unexpected breakdowns, but does not remove the need for developers to proactively maintain their products.
- Complete control of presentation of vouchers and communication with customers
- Professional and highly customisable system
- Instant delivery of e-voucher to purchaser, or their nominated recipient (though as email delivery can never be guaranteed, I don’t recommend allowing vouchers to be sent directly to recipients).
- Low transaction costs and probably no other commission.
- All security and technical functionality is your responsibility!
- Almost certain to require upfront cost of an experienced developer to set up, as well as ongoing maintenance.
- Likely ongoing costs of commercial plug-in.
Case Study – Mary Ann Weeks
I created two gift voucher sales websites for Mary Ann Weeks luxury Aveda salons and spas. In this case, a separate voucher website has been created for each of their locations, though for most businesses, the voucher sales functionality could be integrated with an existing WordPress website.
Two different types of voucher can be purchased – a monetary value of the purchaser’s choosing, where that value is displayed on the PDF voucher; or a voucher for a specific treatment or service, where the recipient does not see the cost.
The vouchers have been popular with customers, and with their friends and families, and have proven to be a valuable tool when integrated with marketing campaigns.
Case Study – Les Amis des Animaux
Les Amis des Animaux is an animal welfare charity based in South West France, whose primary function is to bring abandoned dogs and cats to adoptability through fostering.
This was quite a different application for e-gift vouchers – the idea was to allow supporters of the charity to make a donation on behalf of friends and family members in the knowledge that their gift will not end up at the back of a drawer, won’t have harmed the environment in its production, and will be guaranteed to help dogs and cats in need. They can even choose the style of your PDF voucher to suit dog lovers and cat lovers.
I hope you will agree that selling gift cards online can be a great way for many small businesses to add an additional revenue stream, and can see how easy and inexpensive an option it can be. If you see e-gift vouchers as a serious part of your business and would like to invest in a professional system, get in touch to find out how I can help you to make it all happen.