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No longer a last resort, gift cards shine this year

Gift cards are typically viewed as an easy, convenient solution for the harried holiday shopper, often connoting a certain lack of imagination on a gift giver's part — but not this year.

As a lifeline to businesses hit hard by coronavirus pandemic mandates and restrictions, gift cards hold extra meaning this holiday season. A growing number of online gift card marketplaces make it easier than ever to support the small, neighborhood businesses Seattleites cherish from the safety and comfort of home.

Seattle small business directory Intentionalist has been at the forefront of the shop local movement, offering an online directory of thousands of diverse brick-and-mortars across the region searchable by neighborhood and whether they are minority-owned, woman-owned or veteran-owned, among other communities.

[Spend Like It Matters: Small biz directory wants you to be Intentional with your dollars]

For the holidays, Intentionalist launched a gift card marketplace featuring more than 65 local businesses, most of which have no other e-commerce outlet. It has also put together a series of online gift guides, an Intentionalist gift card accepted at 17 shops and a book of coffee vouchers good at a dozen Seattle-area cafes owned by people of color in a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.

"So many people are saying, I want to support POC-owned businesses," said Intentionalist founder and CEO Laura Clise. "We're all about making it easy for folks to close the gap between intention and action in the way they live their values."

Bridgette Johnson, the owner of Central Cafe and Juice Bar in the Central District, appreciates that Intentionalist provides online marketing for her small business without charging any fees. Intentionalist forgoes merchants and consumers fees, asking shoppers for tips instead. Johnson, who's participating in both the gift card marketplace and coffee voucher program, opened her cafe last January — "which was crazy."

"We have two high schools in our backyard, Nova and Garfield," said Johnson. "And then, no school."

During the current dine-in ban, which Gov. Jay Inslee has extended to Jan. 4 as of mid-December, she's relying on using the cafe's back patio, to-go orders and strong neighborhood support.

[Be Intentional: Diverse Seattle-area restaurants open for takeout & delivery]

Gift card shoppers wanting to keep it local have no shortage of options this year. In addition to Intentionalist, the Shop Your Block program run by the City of Seattle has an online neighborhood marketplace and directory with links to shops in Ballard, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, West Seattle and more. While many sell specific products and services, some also offer gift cards. Ventures Marketplace, a gift shop in Pike Place Market with a social good story, also sells gift cards online.

Another route is to check your local chamber of commerce website. For example, Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce has a link to the new Bainbridge Island General Store, launched on Dec. 4 to support online local shopping. It features a gift certificate marketplace for 98110 stores and services (the Seattle Chamber has a similar resource).

As for sending gift cards to out-of-towners, you can shop local in other cities and states using Square's Give & Get Local service. The site, run by the payment processing service popular with small businesses, allows shoppers to type in an address or town and purchase e-gift cards from nearby merchants in the Square network. OpenTable, an online restaurant reservations site, also has a gift certificate site for some of the restaurants in its national network — 92 Seattle restaurants are currently participating in that program.

Dining establishments are in particular peril — a Seattle Times survey last week indicated that more than 1,000 restaurants and bars in King County have closed for good since the start of the pandemic.

"I think that in many ways, 2020 has been a reminder of the fragility and importance of the small businesses at the heart of our communities," said Clise, whose platform has already generated more than $100,000 in gift card sales for participating merchants. "And as we have remembered how much value they bring above and beyond the services and products they sell, so many people have wanted to do more to show up and support them."