Gift cards have overtaken toys, booze, electronics and games as a top Christmas gift this year. Only clothing beats gift cards on the list of products Canadians want this Christmas, according to Maritz Research Canada.

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Gift cards are now the second-most sought after Christmas gift, behind only clothing and apparel. ((iStock))

A Maritz survey suggests 49 per cent of Canadians want gift cards this year, up from 39 per cent two years ago.

"The flexibility and convenience associated with gift cards continues to make them an evermore popular gift to give and receive," said Rob Daniel, managing director at Maritz.

Daniel told CBC News that gift cards are especially popular with women. Twice as many women said they wanted gift cards than jewelry, according to the survey.

"Maybe the best thing possible is a gift card from Birks," he joked.

While gift cards are popular, there are some downsides.

Most provinces prohibit expiry dates

In order to ensure gift cards are used in a timely manner, some retailers attach expiry dates to them. However, most provinces have legislation to protect consumers from losing the card's value.

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Twice as many women told a Maritz Canada survey they wanted a gift card as wanted jewelry. ((iStock))

According to the Lawyers Weekly, B.C. and Ontario laws permit expiry dates on cards that are sold for a specific good or service. New Brunswick permits expiry dates on cards issued for charitable or marketing purposes.

B.C., New Brunswick and Ontario allow retailers to charge a monthly fee on unused balances, in certain circumstances.

Most other provinces forbid charging fees to gift card customers, but there are exceptions.

Alberta law allows a one-time fee for activating a card at time of purchase, while B.C. and Ontario allow fees for customizing or replacing a card.

Consumer protection agencies warn consumers they should only buy gift cards from trusted sources. Purchasing from online auction sites such as eBay could result in a card that is stolen, counterfeit or was obtained fraudulently.

Buyers are also advised to include the original receipt when giving the card, in case it becomes lost or stolen.

When buying a gift card, consumers are warned to always check the terms and conditions before trading their cash for plastic.

The Maritz survey results are based on online interviews with 1,500 Canadians. The results are considered accurate within 2.5 percentage points 19 times out of 20.