Gift cards: How the new plastic economy is becoming a tool for hidden charity

Sales of gift cards fell last year, and they're expected to fall again this year. They're still one of the most popular gifts items, but as unemployment and inflation have transformed everyday indulgences into unjustifiable luxuries, gift cards have changed, too. Once an invitation to impulse purchases, they're becoming a strategy for gift-givers to help friends and family weather economic storms.

As my DailyFinance colleague Matthew Scott recently noted, the gift-card economy has shifted over the past year from retailer-branded cards to cards that function as cash or credit cards. Part of this may be a holdover from last year's parade of bankruptcies; as Linens & Things and The Sharper Image crashed and burned, their cards suddenly became worthless. Visa (V) and American Express (AXP) gift cards may lack a store's branding appeal, but they're far more likely to survive a downturn.