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Ask the Coronavirus Ethicist: Should I Use My Gift Card?

A professional ethicist answers the tricky questions that we face during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Karen Stohr, PhD, associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. Photo courtesy of Stohr.
Coronavirus 2020

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I have a coronavirus-related ethical question. I received a $150 gift card for a local shop over the holidays, and I haven’t used it because I hadn’t found anything in the store that I wanted. I recently browsed the shop’s website and found an item I’d like to buy. I’ve always viewed gift cards as a transaction that occurred in the past and redeeming one is simply a matter of picking up merchandise which has already been paid for. However, in light of our current situation and the stress that small business owners are facing, it feels a bit icky. The item I would like to buy is far less than the gift card amount. So is it wrong to try to redeem a gift card in this climate? Or should I just consider it a donation to a small business owner at this point?

Dr. Karen Stohr, PhD, associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University: While I think your general characterization of gift cards as past transactions is correct, I do see why you have some ethical qualms here. I don’t think you would be acting wrongly if you ordered the item, but it’s worth pausing to consider the bigger picture, as you are doing. You say that this is a local shop, and that does matter. If it were a gift card for Amazon or another online retailer doing well in the current business environment, there would be fewer ethical concerns. (You should, however, still take into account the impact of your order on warehouse workers and delivery personnel.)

But let’s assume that this is a small shop struggling to stay afloat, as so many are. There is great value for all of us in keeping local stores in business, both because there are people who depend on them for their livelihood and also because they bring desirable variety and character to our cities and towns. If, when this is all over, many restaurants and local shops end up permanently shuttered, we will have lost important parts of our communities. It is easy for small business owners, who have often poured their whole hearts, souls, and savings into their stores, to feel forgotten right now. Without compromising anyone’s health, we should do what we can to help them survive.

What does this mean for your gift card? At the very least, you should avoid burdening the shop owners. Try to find out what would happen if you ordered the item. Is it something that they have in stock in their shop? Would someone have to incur some risk or violate local laws to get the item to you? I’m not sure it’s justified to put them to that trouble to send you, say, a $6 ice cream scoop. In that case, it’s probably best to continue to consider the gift card a donation to the business, or else resolve to spend it later when you have more items you want to buy.

But if it’s within your means, you may be able to do more to help the shop owners right now by giving them new business. In particular, you might consider making a much larger order in which you spend more than the value of the gift card you’re holding. Perhaps you could do some early holiday shopping for friends and family. Or maybe the shop sells items that would bring cheer to families living in homeless shelters, or the residents of nearby nursing homes, or healthcare workers holed up in dorms and hotels between shifts. You could buy additional gift cards and ask the manager of your local grocery store to hand them out to employees. Obviously you should check with those organizations first to make sure they can accept such donations safely. (And don’t replace cash tips with gift cards!) Reaching out to the shop owners might give you a better idea of what is feasible in the circumstances. 

The upshot is that while it’s not obligatory for you to refrain from spending the gift card, it would be a kind thing if you could find a way to use it to make our dark situation a little brighter, both for the shop owner and for other people in your community. 

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