How to Properly Recognize Gift Card Revenue

One of the most common challenges we hear from our B2C customers is regarding proper revenue recognition for gift cards. Gift cards provide a great revenue stream - they bring in cash immediately and are minimal COGS. From your customer's perspective, they solve the age old problem of picking the perfect gift for that special someone. But boy, do they create quite a finance nightmare.

Why? Financially speaking, a gift card is essentially an interest-free loan from the consumer to your company. From a revenue recognition perspective, the funds received from customers amount to deferred revenue (a liability).

Let's examine these issues in more detail:

  • No goods or services were rendered upon the purchase of gift cards, so what do you do with them per FASB accounting standards?
  • When should you recognize gift card revenue?
  • What happens if gift cards are never redeemed?

Basic Gift Card Revenue Recognition

Companies cannot recognize revenue upon the initial sale of a gift card because of a key revenue recognition principle that states that revenue is recognized when or as an entity satisfies a performance obligation by transferring a promised good or service to a customer.

What does that mean? When your company sells a gift card, cash has been received, but goods or services have yet to be rendered. You should Infinitely Defer this gift revenue in your Deferred Revenue account.

For example, let's say your company sells $1,000 worth of gift cards:

Example 1
Jan 1Cash$1,000
Deferred Revenue$1,000

You cannot recognize this revenue until there's a triggered event - namely, providing goods or services when the gift card is redeemed.

The accounting is straightforward; the company recognizes sales revenue and eliminates the liability. Using the same example, let's assume customers redeemed $1,000 worth of gift cards in February.

Ex. 1 Continued
Feb 15Deferred Revenue$1,000
Sales Revenue$1,000

Advanced Gift Card Revenue Recognition

But... what do you do with unredeemed gift cards?

When a gift card's value is not redeemed, the company may be stuck waiting for a redemption to trigger revenue recognition. It does not seem to make much sense for the company to keep unearned revenues as liabilities on their balance sheet in perpetuity. This is a big problem for a lot of companies, with an annual estimation of $1B worth of unredeemed gift cards. So how do you recognize these unredeemed gift cards as breakage income?

If your company issues lots of gift cards and it's rapidly becoming unmanageable. Contact us for a personal assessment to automate this process.

You can recognize breakage income in proportion to the value of actual gift card redemptions.

For example, company sells $1,000 in gift cards to customers in January. The journal entry for these transactions are:

Example 2
Jan 1Cash$1,000
Unearned Revenue$1,000

The company can look at historical redemption patterns, let's say, approximately 90% of the value of the gift cards sold will be redeemed over the next 12 months, with 10% probably remaining unclaimed. So for the newly sold gift cards in January, you can estimate total gift card redemptions of $1,000 x 90% = $900, and estimated breakage of $1,000 x 10% = $100.

Now, assume one of the gift cards, with a value of $100, is used in March to purchase a product with price of $90. Upon delivery of the product, you can immediately recognize $90 of previously unearned revenue from the gift cards.

The $90 redemption also triggers recognition of breakage income in proportion. Of the $900 expected redemptions, $90 has been redeemed and recognized. This is equal to 10% ($90 ÷ $900) of total expected redemptions. You can now recognize 10% of breakage income: $100 x 10% = $10.

Ex. 2 Continued
Feb 15Deferred Revenue$90
Sales Revenue$90
Deferred Revenue$10
Breakage Income$10

Escheatment

All the examples above only apply to situations where the company is allowed to keep the full amount of the unredeemed gift cards. While most states currently exempt gift cards from escheatment laws, a number of states have enacted abandoned property laws for unredeemed gift card balances, typically after a dormancy period of either 3 or 5 years.

Essentially, some states require retailers to turn over the full unredeemed value of gift cards, while others require retailers to surrender a percentage of the unredeemed value (usually 60%). Because they vary from state to state, escheatment laws can add significant complexity to your revenue recognition processes if you operate in multiple states.

Ultimately...

Properly handling gift card revenue recognition can get messy especially for fast growing companies. While gift cards are great sources of revenue for B2C companies, it's important to keep in mind accounting rules and regulations while tracking the appropriate data correctly for each gift card issued. Namely, make sure you properly track issue date, original amount, redemption date, and redemption amount. Setting up a system to track these specific data points is a worthy investment since it will save you a lot of headaches down the road.