NEW YORK - Gift cards, the convenient catchall of holiday giving, lost their luster this year.

Price-conscious shoppers became savvy bargain-hunters, realizing they could give bigger and better gifts by taking advantage of unprecedented discounts rather than by spending a set amount on gift cards, which had been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years.

Another big concern - in a year when chains have filed for bankruptcy - was whether retailers selling the cards would still be around so recipients could use their gift.

Julie Brown of Kansas City, Mo., said big sales lured her to buy more actual presents. "It seemed like there were after-Christmas prices beforehand," said Brown, shopping at Macy's in New York.

People focused on getting more "bang for their buck" rather than paying $75 or $100 for a gift card, said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation trade group.

Consumers figured out that for the $100 they might spend on a gift card, they could get far more merchandise than they could previously - or get something more expensive that had been deeply discounted.

That behavior could be bad news for retailers well into the new year, since they don't record gift cards as sales until they are actually redeemed. Fewer people redeeming the cards could also hurt future sales, since people usually spend more than the gift-card total.

Store-issued gift cards are expected to generate $61 billion in sales in the fourth quarter, down from $70 billion in 2007, said Brian Riley, senior analyst at the research firm the Tower Group.