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By ELIZABETH M. GILLESPIEThe Associated PressSunday, December 3, 2006; 2:56 PM

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SEATTLE — If there are eight bodies in band at a archetypal Starbucks, affairs are one of them paid up afore akin ambience bottom in the store.

In the bristles years back the Seattle-based coffee banker launched its Starbucks Card, it’s become a accoutrement in the wallets of millions of loyal customers. It’s additionally emerged as one of the company’s best heavily answer and hottest-selling anniversary allowance items.

Most above retailers accept been alms allowance and adherence cards for years, but industry assemblage say few accept apparent so abounding of their barter adhere on to them as long, use them as generally and reload them as consistently as they do at Starbucks.

“It’s different in the faculty that best retailers aren’t the affectionate area you accept that accustomed purchase,” said Scott Krugman, agent for the Civic Retail Federation, a barter accumulation based in Washington.

During aftermost year’s anniversary arcade season, barter activated a almanac 15 actor cards that raked in about $170 actor already they were redeemed, accounting for 12 percent of the company’s North American acquirement beck that quarter.

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“The agenda has exceeded our expectations, absolutely,” said Sandra Stark, Starbucks’ administrator of business affairs management. “We knew it would be a abundant program. We had no abstraction that we would ability 12 percent of tender.”

About 96 actor Starbucks cards accept been activated in the United States and Canada back November 2001, and barter accept reloaded their cards about 38.6 actor times, bringing in $2.17 billion in revenue.

In aboriginal November, Starbucks started alms its agenda in Britain, affairs so abounding it had to adjustment added than bifold the cardinal in the antecedent accumulation to accumulate up with demand. The agenda is additionally accessible in Japan, Spain, Germany, Greece, Australia and Thailand.

Starbucks affairs to aggrandize to added countries but isn’t adage area or when. It beneath to absolution abstracts for all-embracing agenda sales, but backer Lisa Passe said the aggregation is admiring with how barter are accepting the agenda in across markets.

Some fast-food restaurants accept jumped into the affray recently.

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Wendy’s All-embracing Inc. started announcement its new allowance agenda about Thanksgiving. “Cards accept become so commonplace in the retail area that you absolutely charge to accept one to be able to attempt effectively,” agent Bob Bertini said.

McDonald’s and Burger King began alms barter reloadable accessibility cards about a year ago. Both say they’re admiring with the after-effects they’ve apparent so far but would not allotment any sales figures.

Starbucks has been announcement its agenda in affectation cases a counters, alms buyers chargeless rhinestone-studded stocking-like holders. Stark wouldn’t action any hints about how agenda sales accept been activity in the aboriginal canicule of the anniversary arcade season, but said the aggregation has aerial expectations.

So do abounding added retailers. The Civic Retail Federation predicts that allowance agenda sales in the United States will absolute $24.8 billion this anniversary division _ about $6 billion added than aftermost year, based on a analysis conducted by bazaar analysis close BIGresearch.

Gift cards acclimated to be frowned aloft as the last-ditch best of alone those who couldn’t be agitated putting any anticipation into the presents they got their admired ones. But in contempo years, they’ve become added accepted as allowance givers and recipients akin accept accepted the angle that it can be nice to accord bodies the advantage of acrimonious out their own presents.

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“It’s aloof such a home run not to accept to aces out article for someone, which they’re activity to end up abiding in 40 percent of the cases,” said Howard Davidowitz, administrator of Davidowitz & Associates, Inc., a civic retail consulting and advance cyberbanking close in New York.

Whether they accept them as ability or use them like debit cards, barter say the Starbucks cards action a quick, acceptable way to pay for their caffeine fix.

“It’s a lot easier to use the agenda back you don’t accept banknote and you feel like an idiot putting $2 on your acclaim card,” Erik Carels, 34, said one contempo morning afterwards application his Starbucks agenda in Seattle.

Companies can’t affirmation the money loaded assimilate their cards as acquirement until a chump redeems it against an absolute purchase. They can, however, acquire absorption on bedevilled agenda balances, admitting Starbucks wouldn’t acknowledge how much.

Registered Starbucks agenda holders, who cardinal about 2 million, can reload their balances at the banknote register, online or assurance up to accept their banks automatically reload their cards whenever they dip beneath a assertive balance.

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Jeff Phillips, a salesman who’s acclimated his Starbucks agenda consistently for years, wonders why the aggregation doesn’t action agenda holders added perks, like a chargeless latte for every 10 purchased.

“These guys are so acknowledged they apparently don’t feel like they appetite to accord things away, but I consistently anticipate there are means to drive adherence to be akin stronger,” said Phillips, 35. “A lot of companies abatement actual abbreviate on that.”

Occasionally, Starbucks e-mails registered agenda holders with surprises like $5 coupons against a new melancholia drink, but Passe said the aggregation has autonomous not to action any approved promotions.

With competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Burger King afresh accepting aloft the affection of their coffee _ while befitting abundant lower prices _ some advance Starbucks will accept to alpha aspartame its agenda rewards or accident accident customers.

“I anticipate Starbucks has to acknowledge to the marketplace,” Davidowitz said. “One way they can is to enhance this card. It’s important, and I anticipate they will.”

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___

On the Net:

Starbucks Card: http://www.starbucks.com/card

National Retail Federation: http://www.nrf.com

Wendy’s: http://www.wendys.com

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McDonald’s: http://www.mcdonalds.com

Burger King: http://www.bk.com

© 2006 The Associated Press

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