Looking to Extend Its Digital Gift Card Business, Blackhawk Snaps up CashStar

Blackhawk Network Inc., a major player in merchant-branded prepaid cards, just gained an even bigger foothold in that market with its $175-million, all-cash acquisition of CashStar Inc., a 10-year-old firm specializing in digital gift cards.

Announced Wednesday morning the deal brings to Pleasanton, Calif.-based Blackhawk a platform enabling merchants to market digital, branded gift cards directly to consumers. Blackhawk estimates the so-called first-party gift card market at $100 billion in annual sales. Digital cards, which consumers can download to laptops and mobile devices, is the fastest-growing segment of that market, Blackhawk says. In the latest data available, they accounted for about 18% of all gift card loads in 2015, up from 10% in 2014, according to Mercator Advisory Group, Maynard, Mass.

Portland, Maine-based CashStar claims more than 300 retail clients, including restaurants and retail chains like Best Buy, CVS Pharmacy, Nordstrom, Sephora, Starbucks, Subway, and Cheesecake Factory. “With the addition of CashStar, Blackhawk is now a leading provider in the fast-growing first-party digital market,” said Talbott Roche, chief executive and president of Blackhawk Network, in a statement.

Observers reacted to the deal favorably. “This makes a lot of sense for Blackhawk,” says Lawrence S. Berlin, who follows Blackhawk as a vice president at Chicago-based First Analysis. “This expands the knowledge base Blackhawk already has.”

Other analysts agree, and point to CashStar’s relationship to mobile pioneer Starbucks as an especially enticing part of the deal for Blackhawk. “The acquisition extends [Blackhawk’s] mobile and digital gift carding capabilities, while also deepening [its] relationship with the leading mobile wallet in the world, Starbucks,” notes Thomas McCrohan, a fintech and payments analyst at New York City-based Mizuho Securities, in an email message. “This is all about [Blackhawk] building an omnichannel gift card experience for their clients and adding domain expertise in mobile.”