Spas and tea rooms are fleecing Christmas shoppers with gift cards that expire within just six months.
The Government says vouchers should never be sold with an expiry date of less than two years — and has urged the entire industry to set this as a new minimum.
But many health clubs, hotels and restaurants — including the Orangery at Kensington Palace — are flouting this.
Research shows retailers pocket up to £300 million a year from cards that customers fail to spend before they become worthless.
Experts say there is no justification for expiry dates — and accuse shops of profiting twice from the same sale on vouchers that are never used, effectively selling the same goods or service twice.
A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesman says: ‘It’s inherently unfair for consumers to spend money on gift cards, only to be locked into restrictive conditions or impractical expiry dates.
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‘That’s why we continue to work closely with the gift card and voucher industry to improve transparency and simplicity around expiry dates, as well as encouraging retailers to make two-year expiry periods the norm.’
Money Mail found numerous cards were valid for short times.
They can be used for only six months at the Tea Parlour in Liverpool, London’s B Bakery and at the Orangery at Kensington Palace — but a note on its website says the expiry date will be December 31 due to refurbishment.
And the same is true for several health clubs and spas in the capital. Ajala spa, Amara spa and Aquilla Health and Fitness cards are only valid for six months.
Time limits: The Government says vouchers should never be sold with an expiry date of less than two years. But many health clubs, hotels and restaurants are flouting this
Gift cards for Spa Seekers, the spa booking website, expire after ten months. The same applies to buyagift.co.uk, which sells vouchers for short breaks, massages driving days and other experiences.
You have 12 months to use vouchers for world-famous afternoon teas at Claridge’s and the Wolseley hotels as well as Yorkshire favourite, Bettys tea rooms.
Clothing retailer White Stuff, Ticketmaster and Costa coffee gift cards also expire after only 12 months, as do those for cinema chains including Vue and Everyman.
Ticketmaster acknowledges customers are at risk of forgetting to spend the cash within the stated period, warning online: ‘If you are the one giving the gift, please remember to pass the information on — you don’t want it to go to waste.’
Many restaurant gift cards also expire after 12 months, although some will give you three months’ grace. These include The Restaurant Choice card that can be used in venues such as Jamie’s Italian, Nando’s, Zizzi and Yo! Sushi.
The Great British Pub card, for Greene King pubs, Loch Fyne, Hungry Horse and Wacky Warehouse restaurants, among others, also expires after 12 months.
Meanwhile, supermarket Ocado changed its cut-off date from eight weeks to 12 months in January after criticism. Its small print was only changed last week, although the policy was altered months ago.
A study by the consumer organisation Which? found retailers including JD Sports, Sunglass Hut, Ted Baker and Westfield shopping centres impose one-year expiry dates.
Westfield even charges a £9.95 fee to extend a giftcard’s life by just three months.
James Daley, of Fairer Finance, says: ‘The money on a gift card is already being eroded by inflation — so the longer you hang on to it, the less it will buy you.
‘Expiry dates should be banned altogether — or at the very least set to a minimum of five years.’
He said expiry dates on gift cards had been banned in Canada for almost ten years and were also outlawed in several U.S. states including California and Florida. Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron says: ‘It is baffling that some retailers’ gift cards still have expiry dates as short as a few weeks.
‘Millions of pounds worth of vouchers risk going unspent yet again this year because ministers are failing to take action.
‘The Government must stop dragging its feet and introduce a two-year limit, to clamp down on this Christmas rip-off.’
Drink up: The Great British Pub card, for Greene King pubs, Loch Fyne, Hungry Horse and Wacky Warehouse restaurants, among others, also expires after 12 months
A few retailers impose no expiry date. These include Aldo, Ikea, Starbucks, Apple store iTunes, Disney, Foot Locker and Selfridges.
But the majority give limited offers. Laura Ashley, Caffe Nero, Pizza Hut and ASK Italian have an 18-month cut off.
Department stores John Lewis and House of Fraser both offer cards which are valid for two years.
Chains, including Mothercare, Oasis, Next, Marks & Spencer, White Company, WHSmith and Sports Direct do the same — all meeting Government advice.
Some extend further still, offering a three-year period of use. Zara, Homebase and Argos gift cards can be used up to three years after purchase (two years for Argos online voucher purchases).
In some cases, if you use the voucher in part or top it up within a given period, the use-by date will be extended. In most cases, gift vouchers expire 12 or 24 months from the date of purchase.
However, this date is rarely printed on the card itself, meaning that the recipient is often in the dark about when the card becomes useless.
Consumer expert Andrew Hagger says: ‘The expiry date on gift cards is often buried in the small print. There really should be a minimum two-year expiry date as standard — and it should be printed clearly on the card itself so consumers don’t lose out.
‘These cards may be convenient when you are struggling to think of a suitable present but if the firm goes bust, the balance is lost.’
Research by The UK Gift Card & Voucher Association (UKGCVA) in 2014 found up to £300million-worth of gift vouchers expire before they can be spent every year. But it said since then 99 per cent of gift cards are spent within a year. A spokesman for the UKGCVA says: ‘We encourage our members to have complete transparency of gift card terms and conditions.
‘We suggest retailers and other gift card and voucher-issuers apply an expiry date policy of around 24 months from the date of purchase of the gift card or from the date of the most recent transaction.’
An Ocado spokeswoman says: ‘We changed the expiry from eight weeks to give customers more time to redeem them. We are sorry for the confusing information on our website, this has been updated.’
Westfield shopping centres says: ‘Customers can at any point choose to extend the gift card for a further three months for a £9.95 administration fee. Discretion can be used for individual circumstances.’
A spokesman for CH&Co, which runs catering services for The Orangery at Kensington Palace, says that its afternoon tea vouchers there ‘are valid for a period of six months and most are used in that timescale.
‘Where vouchers have recently expired, we would always do our best to accommodate people.’
B Bakery said their seasonal offering meant they could not extend their expiry date.
And a Tea Parlour spokesman said: ‘Our gift vouchers are only six months, but we’re flexible on extending whenever reasonable. No one wants to see a customer disappointed.’