Home > Financial arcana > Friends don’t let friends buy gift cards

Friends don’t let friends buy gift cards

Australia’s worst book retailing chain, RedGroup (parent of Borders and Angus & Robertson) went into administration yesterday. There are a few reasons for this:

1) RedGroup was a highly indebted private equity portfolio company;
2) Australian retail spending has been weak-ish in general for the last year or so;
3) Books have been particularly hard-hit by consumers switching to online retail from overseas;
4) This is exacerbated by an extremely silly law which bans wholesalers and retailers importing books from overseas, instead forcing them to pay exorbitant local publisher prices;
5) According to pinch-of-salt-worthy rumours, the chain wasn’t very well run. Certainly, it didn’t provide a very enjoyable retail experience.

So, it’s the kind of story that was prevalent in the UK in the late 2000s: a retailer which isn’t massively successful but was making just-about-tolerable money gets bought and heavily leveraged by a private equity company. Then the market takes a turn downhill, the new owners can’t cut costs enough to make up for the downturn, and the company can’t make enough profit to pay the debt – so the administrators get called in and the shareholders lose all their money. On the plus side, at least the shareholders who lost all their money on the deal were greedy private equity zillionaires.

But since the Australian media has been denied an ‘OMG THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!!!’ story from ripped-off shareholders, it’s managed to dig one up from consumers instead, about RedGroup gift cards not being honoured by the administrator. Well, no – of course they aren’t. Indeed, he’s being very generous in their case.

When a company goes into administration (Australian and UK law are fairly similar here), the administrator is required to run the company in the interests of its creditors – the people to whom it owes money – until he has worked out a longer-term plan for the company’s future. If he can sell the business as a going concern once the debts are out of the way, this will normally generate the most value for creditors.

In this case, RedGroup’s creditors are its banks, the Australian Tax Office, its landlords (because the stores have multi-year leases), its suppliers (because publishers are paid in arrears), and the people who hold RedGroup gift cards (because they represent a commitment for RedGroup to give you goods of a certain value on a certain future date).

If the company is unable to pay all of its debts, some of these creditors take priority over others, because their debts are legally enforceable against the assets of the business. Usually, these secured creditors are the banks and the ATO (under certain circumstances). So the administrator’s job is to come up with the best way of minimising the loss to the company’s creditors in total, while also ensuring that secured creditors are the first to be repaid. It’s likely that RedGroup is in this position: otherwise, its management would have been unlikely to bring in the administrator in the first place.

This means that if Penguin’s MD were to turn up at RedGroup’s head office saying “you haven’t paid us for books in months, give us some money now!”, then the administrator would tell him to go away until the administration process is complete. Penguin will get its share of the remaining assets once the secured creditors have been paid off, but as an unsecured creditor it won’t get anything until then.

The administrators of collapsed UK music retailer Zavvi applied this same approach to gift voucher holders: they were treated as unsecured creditors, and – along with other unsecured creditors – are likely to get back 10-20% of the face value of their debt. However, RedGroup’s administrator has been more generous to voucher-holders than Zavvi’s.

Borders or A&R gift card holders also have the right to lodge an unsecured claim, but the administrator has said that they can instead fully redeem their card as long as they are spending twice its face value (i.e. if you buy $40 worth of books, you can pay with a $20 gift card and $20 in cash or card). This is offered as a gesture of goodwill, but presumably reflects the administrator’s belief that the chain will be worth more if he does this – both because it’ll keep up cashflow in the short term, and because it’ll tarnish the brand less than if cardholders had been offered cents on the dollar years down the line.

The difference in administrator behavior is most likely because Borders and A&R are likely to continue to exist in some form or other, whereas Zavvi pretty much wasn’t (it was a newish brand, and it moved from ‘precarious’ to ‘ruined’ after its main supplier went insolvent a month before Christmas and therefore couldn’t supply it with stock). But if the administrator ends up concluding the finances look really nasty, this could all change – so if you’ve got a voucher and you value a half-price trip to the bookshop, then now’s the time to use it.

What’s the conclusion, apart from ‘don’t borrow money against assets that won’t cover your interest payments, duh’?

Well, for individuals, no matter how unimaginative you are, how mercenary your nieces and nephews are, or indeed any other concerns of any kind whatsoever, don’t buy gift vouchers. Would you spend $50 on unsecured, 0% interest bonds sold by a highly indebted company struggling to stay afloat in a massively competitive market? No, nor would I – and that’s exactly what purchasers of gift vouchers are doing.

There’s a policy conclusion as well, which is that retailers shouldn’t really be allowed to issue gift vouchers – they’re effectively a license to print money, granted to institutions that (jokes about the financial crisis aside) are far less regulated and far more likely to go under than banks are. That can’t be a good thing, for anyone in the system.

If retailers do want to have a gift card scheme, they should be obliged to lodge all money earned from the sale of gift cards with a third party, completely detached from the assets and liabilities of the business, and only released when the gift card is redeemed against goods. I suspect, since it doesn’t mean Free Cash Now, such a scheme would be significantly less popular among retailers than the current setup…

  1. February 19, 2011 at 8:55 am | #1

    the administrator is required to run the company in the interests of its creditors – the people who owe it money

    To whom it owes money……

    The other lot are called "debtors"

  2. February 19, 2011 at 8:57 am | #2

    Ta, fixed. I'm now trying to imagine how an insolvency regime run in the interests of debtors would work – entertainingly but unsuccessfully, is my conjecture.

  3. dsquared
    February 19, 2011 at 1:39 pm | #3

    This means that if Penguin’s MD were to turn up at RedGroup’s head office saying “you haven’t paid us for books in months, give us some money now!”, then the administrator would tell him to go away until the administration process is complete

    Unlikely. The whole purpose of appointing an administrator is to ensure that the company can continue to operate, and all the other creditors would presumably agree that essential trade suppliers would continue to be paid if the company is going to keep trading.

    On the subject of gift vouchers, the value isn't in the (fairly nugatory) interest on the cash float, but in the often surprisingly high proportion of gift vouchers that are lost, forgotten about or otherwise never redeemed at all. Notoriously, the Royal Mail has a whole marketing team set up to deal with philatelists because they are the perfect customer – they buy everything the company chooses to produce, and then never use it.

  4. Myles
    February 19, 2011 at 11:24 pm | #4

    Notoriously, the Royal Mail has a whole marketing team set up to deal with philatelists because they are the perfect customer – they buy everything the company chooses to produce, and then never use it.

    What's notorious about that? After all, there used to be entire countries whose post office largely existed to make otherwise pointless stamps for precisely that reason.

    On the subject of gift vouchers, the value isn’t in the (fairly nugatory) interest on the cash float, but in the often surprisingly high proportion of gift vouchers that are lost, forgotten about or otherwise never redeemed at all.

    I wonder what's to redemption percentage for say, Costco versus say, Neiman Marcus. Neiman Marcus gift cards actually do make sense as gifts, as wasteful as they seem. People go into Neiman Marcus for a treat.

  5. February 20, 2011 at 8:08 am | #5

    "After all, there used to be entire countries whose post office largely existed to make otherwise pointless stamps for precisely that reason."

    I know of a country that actually financed a revolution through the post office.

    Anguilla.

    They rebelled against being independent as part of the Eastern Caribbean Federation, saying they wanted to be a colony again. So they overstamped (using a John Bull printing set sort of thing) EC Federation stamps they had lysing around and were rather surprised to be able to sell sheets and sheets of them at well above face value to various philatelists.

    Least, that's the story uncle used to tell and he was one of the civil servant types sent in to sort it all out.

  6. Newmania
    February 21, 2011 at 4:39 am | #6

    The fact that in my business there are still a lot of ludicrously geared groups whose business plan is 'hope' is one of the things that made me highly suspcicious of the whole left wing disinterest in supply side restructuring. Now inflation has its feet under the table that crap about a return to the 1930s looks like the fairy story it was.
    This is also a nice demonstration of the chimercal nature " Ye olde lost Billions of Tax Evasion". This is being seriously touted as an answer to the deficit crsis by a lot of – dogs on string – people hereabouts.They are blockading the local Boots its great fun.
    I think this is part of a wider problem of the insidious suggestion that you do not have to caveat when you empt.
    Things still going well over there John, still reaping the benign harvest of years of fiscal conservatism and small state politics eh. Sounds great

  7. Matthew
    February 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm | #7

    Talking of stamps, now inflation in the UK is 4-5%, perhaps 1st class stamps are again a good investment. They hedge against what you might think is a commodity falling in real value, first class postage, but in fact the price has been rising faster than CPI for a while now (I think, I can't find any history on the internet)

  8. February 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm | #8

    @dsquared : this is of course a case of "things that make perfect sense in theory, but can you really ask people to make a quick assessment of Boots' creditworthiness before they pick up a gift voucher for Auntie Balls?"

    Especially as creditworthiness is an attribute that is only ever knowable in hindsight. Woolies looked pretty solid until not long before the explosion. Enron went under clutching its investment grade ticket.

  9. February 22, 2011 at 10:16 pm | #9

    dsquared: from my time dealing with retailers, it's not the interest that they like, it's the upfront cash (and, as you say, the bonus when people can't be bothered to redeem them. I'm reminded of your story about RBS's commemorative fivers). Upfront cash is pretty much the sole commodity that retailers prize.

    Alex: this is why I'm suggesting that nobody should buy gift vouchers from any retailer at all ever. Easier rule to follow…

  10. February 26, 2011 at 12:32 pm | #10

    So the assorted Index, Woolworths and Thresher gift vouchers lying around in a drawer may be worth something after all ?

  11. February 26, 2011 at 8:36 pm | #11

    I suspect you've missed the deadline to claim unsecured creditor status for your Woolies and Threshers vouchers, but yes in principle. Index never went bust (Littlewoods closed the chain down, selling the brand and most of the stores to Argos) so if the vouchers don't have an expiry date, then *someone* should be liable for them (presumably Littlewoods, unless they 'sold' the liabilities to Argos as part of the deal).

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