Green Tree-based GiftCards.com makes gift buying a snap
Entrepreneur Jason Wolfe mulled the landscape of retail gift certificates in 1999 and questioned all the paper shuffling, given the rise of the Internet.
“With the growth of digital media and debit cards, I just thought gift cards would be a better product,” Wolfe said.
So he built a company around it. Wolfe registered the name, GiftCards.com, a year earlier, which proved to be a great choice. The name not only describes exactly what the company in Green Tree does, but it's what most gift givers type in an online search.
Today, GiftCards.com averages about 1 million hits a month, Wolfe said, making it the nation's most trafficked gift card site. It sold about a million cards last year.
“We compete against people like Amazon.com and Wal-Mart, and here we're this little company in Pittsburgh that does more than they do,” he said.
Wolfe, the company's sole owner, declined to disclose GiftCards.com's revenue. But employment grew quickly, from five people in 2006, to 60 in 2010, to 100. He expects to hire 15 to 20 people next year.
“More and more people are moving toward buying online, and we are the No. 1 gift card site,” Wolfe said.
Gift cards have become a big industry. About $110 billion worth of gift cards changed hands in the United States last year, according to CEB TowerGroup. The business advisory firm estimates the market will reach $130 billion by 2015.
Consumers visiting the GiftCards.com site choose from Visa or MasterCard prepaid cards or from one of about 60 national branded cards, such as for Outback Steakhouse or Morton's.
Consumers pay $3.95 per card, plus the value put on the card. They can personalize gift cards with messages and photos they download. Then, GiftCards.com makes and mails the cards to recipients from its headquarters, a high-security building.
Wolfe said about 70 percent of the gift cards the company mails represent corporate business — companies that send cards to employees or clients. A second location blocks away from headquarters employs 30 sales people who focus on building corporate clientele.
Ewing Irrigation Products Inc., for example, will distribute about 10,000 MasterCard and Visa cards with about $2 million of value on them in January. The Phoenix-based company, which serves contractors, developers and others in 22 states, began using GiftCards.com in 2009 to send cards as a reward to cash-paying customers.
“If (GiftCards.com) doesn't do the presentation of the card accurately and mail them correctly, our customers would have a problem, so we would have a problem,” said Ewing Senior Vice President Rilus Graham III. “But they are a testament to good customer service and great performance.”
Wolfe is a testament to pluck and determination. He taught himself to write computer software in 1995 at age 25 while laid up for months from back surgery after an accident.
Such effort helped Wolfe garner accolades in recent years. He received a Governor's ImPAct Entrepreneur Award earlier this year and was named the Ernst & Young eCommerce Entrepreneur of the Year for Western Pennsylvania in 2011.
Wolfe grew up in poverty and said his focus on gift-giving came from two childhood memories.
At age 7, on a cold Christmas in Connecticut, Wolfe and his two siblings and their mother discovered a box of gifts someone left anonymously on the front porch.
Then, with so little money, his mother sent young Wolfe to the Milton Hershey School, a free school in Central Pennsylvania for underprivileged orphans, which he attended from fifth through 12th grades.
“These were both great gifts in my life,” Wolfe said. “So, I guess it became a psychological thing. I wanted to give others gifts and ‘make 'em smile,' which is our tag line.”
Thomas Olson is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.