Apple earlier today launched its annual Black Friday sale, but rather than directly discount hardware -- as it's done for years -- it offered gift cards of up to $150 with a purchase.
And has become habitual, some resellers either slashed prices directly or bundled gift cards of larger amounts than Apple.
The sale provided Apple Store gift cards of $150 with the purchase of any new MacBook Air, MacBook Pro or iMac. An iPad Air came with a $75 gift card, while a first-generation iPad Mini or iPad 2 included a $50 card.
Apple also threw in gift cards with the purchase of an iPod Touch, iPod Nano and Apple TV, as well as with select accessories, such as its own Time Capsule backup drive and Nike's FuelBand.
The gift cards represented larger discounts than Apple, known as a Black Friday tightwad, has handed out in the past. For an entry-level 11-in. MacBook Air or a 16GB iPad Air, the gift cards represented discounts of 15%, compared to the 10% and 8%, respectively, of last year.
But those discounts would be realized only if the customer had other purchases planned. Apple Store gift cards can be used at the firm's online or retail stores, but are not valid for app or digital content buys.
Gift cards were not offered for the Retina iPad Mini, which remains in short supply, or for any iPhone.
The gift card deals were good through Apple's online store and at its brick-and-mortar outlets. Customers could also place an order online and then pick up the item at a local Apple store.
Rival retailers, however, beat Apple's deals. For Black Friday, Walmart bundled a $100 store gift card with the purchase of an iPad Air, and Best Buy cut prices of many Mac notebook and desktop systems by either $150 or $200.
Businesses have increasingly gravitated toward gift card deals to drive traffic back into their stores, to cut expenses and boost profits. Cards are often lost or simply forgotten -- especially those with small amounts remaining -- and many future purchases exceed the value of the cards, bringing in even more revenue down the road. According to CEB TowerGroup, in 2012 an estimated $1.7 billion in U.S. gift cards went unused.
This isn't the first time that Apple has used gift cards rather than direct discounts to drive sales. Earlier this year, for example, Apple reprised its card-based back-to-school sale with deals ranging from $50 with the purchase of an iPad, iPad Mini or iPhone, to $100 with a Mac. Those gift cards were good for later purchases of apps at the iOS or OS X app stores.
Apple switched to gift cards, ditching discounts, for this year's version of its Black Friday one-day annual sale.
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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