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Sweaters? So five minutes ago.

Gloves? Passe.

What to give? Try cold, hard plastic.

For the first time, gift cards are expected to replace apparel as the gift of choice for the holidays, according to the Deloitte & Touche 19th annual consumer survey, which tracks holiday spending plans and trends.

Roughly 64 percent of consumers surveyed said they plan to buy gift cards. That's up from 60 percent the year before and double the rate of consumers that plan to give greenbacks.

What gives?

Tara Weiner, Deloitte & Touche's national managing partner for consumer-business industries, points to the number of gift cards now available at the Safeway checkout stand -- from upscale retailer Nordstrom to Borders Books & Music.

"That's testimony," Weiner said. "People are just out of time."

The gift-card market has surged in recent years -- it's the only retail segment this holiday season that's expected to see double-digit growth. Not only are more retailers offering gift cards, they're using them as a fashion statement.

Target, for instance, offers a Mr. Sandman gift card that shows a snowman made of sand, holding a surf board. Another card featured tangled Christmas lights.

Specialty-coffee retailer Starbucks, whose reloadable stored-value cards hit the $1 billion mark in October, has offered 40 designs to customers since launching the card three years ago.

The trend keeps growing. The National Retail Federation projects that gift-card sales will surpass $55 billion this year, a 22 percent increase over the year before. By 2005, it forecasts sales of $65 billion.

Kathy Gersch, who heads business development for Seattle-based, said gift cards are driving the decisions of large companies.

The Seattle Mariners this week began selling gift cards that fans can use to buy game tickets, gift-shop items and ballpark concessions.

"It's somewhat of a societal shift," Gersch said.

In its annual survey, Deloitte & Touche said the average respondent planned to buy 4.7 cards.

The card were more popular with those 65 and older and those with incomes of at least $100,000.

The survey also showed that consumers this year plan to stop at fewer venues to purchase gifts, which gives retailers an added incentive to offer gift cards to customers.

"If you're not able to satisfy them by having the right size or the right color, you want to, at least, do something that locks that consumer in," Weiner said.

The rise of the gift card also should make January retail sales more important as consumers redeem their cards after the holidays.

Retailers close their books for the year Jan. 31.

Either way, expect a gift card if you're a relative or a friend:

A Comdata survey showed that 59 percent of respondents have bought a gift card for a relative, and 44 percent bought one for a friend.

Just 8 percent reported buying one for a spouse.

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