11/27/2012 05:21 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Desired gift cards don't always align with presents received, study suggests

They're stocked everywhere from corner-store pharmacies to big-box stores, but the plastic gift cards that are omnipresent today weren't always so readily accessible — or even in existence.

Oklahoma-based SSI Technologies created the first gift card for the industry in 1995, produced for Blockbuster. In the years since, the present of plastic has mushroomed into a multi-million-dollar business on both sides of the border.

A recent study co-authored by researchers at Weber State University in Utah sought to explore the popularity of giving gift cards, while also looking at whether they're viewed the same as cash or seen as traditional gifts.

Marketing professors E.K. Valentin and Anthony Allred surveyed more than 300 people in northern Utah for their study "Giving and Getting Gift Cards," published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing.

Respondents were presented with various hypothetical choices. Some were framed as everyday cards to spend on items like groceries and gasoline. Such cards were considered "relatively liquid" because they put cash back in recipients' pockets, saving them money on items they would ordinarily buy, noted Valentin.

Meanwhile, special cards to purchase "enjoyable non-necessities" were more restrictive, such as jewelry or department store cards.

Interestingly, Valentin said respondents were generally less likely to give the cards they actually most wanted to receive: those same everyday, cash-like gift cards. He said those findings are in keeping with much of the same research on traditional gifts.

The study also found people felt somewhat less guilt buying personal luxuries with gift cards — even those used to purchase household necessities — than they did when buying them with cash or a credit card.

Valentin said perceptions and tendencies around gift-giving changed depending on the nature of the relationship.

Respondents typically preferred to receive $50 special gift cards for non-necessity items from close friends. Meanwhile, more liquid, everyday $50 gift cards were preferred as presents from more casual acquaintances.

"One the one hand, when it comes to `What would you like to receive?' people seem to think on more utilitarian terms," Valentin said in an interview from Ogden, Utah. "But on the other hand, when they think about giving gifts, they're concerned about what they project in terms of their regard for the recipient and so on."

So, if cash-like gift cards used to buy everyday goods and services are generally coveted, why not just save the trouble of buying gift cards at all and simply slip a $20 or $50 bill into an envelope?

"I think that's part of the stigma that attaches to cash (is) that it is so devoid of any sort of personal expression," said Valentin.

"It's just the easiest, least time-consuming thing to do, and there's nothing novel about it, there's nothing exciting, nothing serendipitous about it. Cash is just cash."

Ultimately, Valentin said it's not just the utilitarian value of the gift that matters, but the old adage of "it's the thought that counts" — a mantra that takes on greater weight depending on the relationship between gift-giver and gift-getter.

"The closer the relationship, the more the thought seems to count."