Ala Moana gift cards had early troubles
A friend sent me an e-mail that is going around. Is it possible to find out if this is true or not before the holiday season begins? The e-mail says: "Hello Family and Friends, Please pay attention to this memo regarding GIFT CARDS from ALA MOANA CENTER. This information is written by someone who is employed by one of the businesses at Ala Moana. So, beware when selecting gift cards from Ala Moana Center Information Office, center stage. Please share with your family and friends." (The e-mail goes on to warn people about alleged problems with the card.) The e-mail ends by saying: "For these reasons and more, I say 'JUST SAY NO' to Ala Moana Gift cards. PASS THE WORD TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!"
Q: With the Christmas shopping season just around the corner, I recently received an e-mail from a friend warning me not to buy Ala Moana gift cards. I strongly suspect that the e-mail is either a hoax or contains exaggerated information because it urges its recipients to forward it to everyone they know. Can you verify any of the above? I haven't yet found anything like this on any of the Internet hoax sites, so it's hard to tell.
Answer: We received both your queries on Monday, which indicates the e-mail is just now making the rounds.
"The overall message in that e-mail isn't the whole story about how our gift cards work," said Sharon James, regional vice president of marketing for General Growth-Hawaii, which operates Ala Moana Center.
She said General Growth officials learned about the e-mail about a week and a half ago when people started sending it to them.
She responded to each of the assertions in the e-mail as follows:
» "You must know your exact balance or the card is useless."
James acknowledged it is important to know your balance, in the same way you should know your line of credit on debit or credit cards. She said there is a sticker on the front of the cards "alerting customers to the importance of keeping track of the balance."
» "It's not easy to get your balance. Customers tell us all the time that the system is often down. The card is administered by American Express, so you're always talking to someone on the mainland who has no clue about what is Ala Moana."
James said card holders can check balances by going to the Customer Service Center at Ala Moana; by swiping the cards at one of 11 "Balance Readers" located throughout the mall; by calling, toll-free, (800) 263-4928; or by checking on-line at www.ggpgiftcard.com.
"As a courtesy to customers most stores will call to retrieve the balance on the gift card if customers are unaware," she said.
Because the cards run on the American Express system rather than on a "close looped system" for an individual store, James said customers can use them at all the stores and restaurants at Ala Moana.
She also said, "American Express has extended call center hours and increased staffing to better service Hawaii merchants."
» "If you are making a purchase that is more than the amount on the gift card, the exact amount on the card must be entered into the register or the sale automatically declines. (This was a glitch that AMC neglected to tell any of the merchants about in the beginning, so for the first two weeks after the program was implemented, 80 percent of the transactions were declining and we didn't even know why!)"
James said, "Merchants have been educated on how to process transactions using an Ala Moana Center gift card and a second form of payment. This eliminates any declines to the gift card when making a purchase that exceeds the available balance on the card."
She said American Express held training sessions for all merchants before the initial launch of the gift card program, while center customer service representatives met with all new tenants to familiarize them about processing the cards.
"We also provide ongoing support and training throughout the year and any merchant who needs additional information or support to handle the gift cards needs only to ask," she said.
» "When you make returns, your only options are to put the credit back on the gift card or take a store credit from the store where you are making the return -- no cash back. And what if you've already thrown away the card because you used it up, or if you don't have it with you? Then you have to settle for store credit, so it is no longer useable anywhere else in Ala Moana."
It's true that the gift cards are good only for merchandise credit, not cash.
But, customers who return items purchased with a gift card may obtain either store credit or gift card credit, James said.
She said merchants are told to return the gift card to the customer in case an item needs to be returned. So, yes, "It is important for the customer to hold on to the gift card if they think they may want to return a purchased item."
» "If you do make a return and credit it back to the card, the credit IS NOT immediately available. It can take up to 24 hours for it to show back up on the card. So if you return something at Longs, you may have to wait up to 24 hours before you can go make a purchase at Macy's."
It is true that the credit is not immediately reflected.
James said the reason for the delay is that gift cards, like credit or debit cards, may require three to seven days to process.
» "Ala Moana will not tell you about any of this when you buy the cards. You are free to find this out on your own -- and be frustrated and embarrassed when your sale won't go through."
"All necessary information and helpful hints are provided to the customer with each gift card purchase," James said.
That includes information about the need to check balances, the policy regarding returns and about the delay in getting credited for returns, she said.
She added that there are "enhanced security features" because the cards are issued by American Express. For example, cards can be replaced if lost or stolen.
The gift cards can be used at all 260 merchants and merchants at Ala Moana Center, as well as at hundreds of other General Growth Properties, including Ward Centers and Windward Mall on Oahu, James added.
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