Last year you probably bought a gift certificate or gift card, right? You bought one for a picky teenager, the office Yankee swap, or for kid who is old enough for an iPad, but not old (see: trustworthy) enough for a credit card connected to their iTunes account.

Gift certificates might not look so hot on the holiday tree, but last year 80% of shoppers said they planned to buy gift certificates and 58% said they'd like to receive one. They weren't kidding either, because according to a Q4 trend report from last year, gift card sales grew 55% compared to the previous year. In fact, they made up 18% of all gift sales.

In this busy time of year—and with our increasingly busy schedules—gift certificates might just be the hottest gift of 2012.

To stand out to the gift certificate-giving crowd, try these tips for going the extra mile and making your gift certificates stand out:

Sell an experience: For example, if you're a spa, you know that people spend a lot of time trying to relax after the holidays. Put together a specific post-holiday stress-buster package and make a gift certificate specifically for that. Restaurants can create a prix-fixe meal package with a bottle of wine. Inc.com says this is the best way to double your gift certificate sales.

Turn it into a complete gift: Couple your gift certificates with something else that ties in directly to your business - perhaps a bottle of local maple syrup, spices, a knit item, or even a recipe book if you're a restaurant. Don't sell yourself short though - add a little to the top.

Here are some ideas for pairing products with gift certificates:

  • Wrap a sports store gift card in a wristband or inside a pair of socks
  • Give a music store gift card in a mason jar filled with shredded sheet music
  • Fill a jar up with chocolates, wrapped with lace, and put a jewelry store gift card inside
  • Wrap an art store or hardware store gift card with paint swatches or an expensive paintbrush
  • Tie a liquor store gift card to the neck of a wine or liquor bottle
  • Tie a string to a bookstore gift card and use it as a bookmark in popular books

Partner with other businesses: Who says it's all about you? Wouldn't it be nice if you sold movie tickets to go with a nice night out? Or a dinner after a long spa day? Partner with local businesses to create unique packages.

Let them download online: Give last-minute gift shoppers a break by letting them order gift certificates online that they can download and print right from their own computers. At the very least, offer quick-shipping.

Give them a gift certificate too: A great way to increase sales is to offer a little bonus to the gift-giver. Instead of discounting gift certificates, give them a $5 or $10 gift certificate for every $50 or $100 they spend.

Offer the VIP treatment: People feel awkward using gift certificates just like they do using coupons. Train staff to treat people using gift certificates with an extra touch of affection, just like you would when building leads. Many businesses have reputations for how they treat customers who use gift certificates - make yours positive.

Wrap them up: As mentioned, gift certificates aren't all that pretty. Do your best to wrap them up. Buy fancy boxes with ribbons and give them to all of your gift certificate customers. Put them on display so that potential gifters will see how classy your gift certificate will look in the hands of their giftee.

Offer bonuses to waitstaff: Nothing works better in sales than a personal recommendation. Train waitstaff to enthusiastically suggest adding a gift certificate to their final bill. Reward waitstaff for their sales.

Offer limited-time incentives: While your staff is pitching the sale of a gift certificate, come up with a deal that is only valuable right then and there with their current purchase. Let them know if they try to come back the next day, the incentive won't be valid.

Promote bulk incentives: Want to appeal to all of the bosses who need to supply gifts for their entire team? Create a promotion around employee gifts, and give the business owner something nice in return.

Images come from Queenvanna Creation, Reframed, and seaserider on Etsy.

Are gift certificates a hot sales item for you during the holidays?
Do you know why/why not? Share your experience in the comments.

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