The following is an article from Uncle John's Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.
These days almost every retailer has some kind of loyalty program- frequent flyer miles, grocery store club cards, even low-tech cardboard punchcards at the local sandwich shop. But 100 years ago it all started …with trading stamps.
(Image credit: Flickr user Chuck Coker)
Back in 1896, a silverware salesman named Thomas Sperry was making his regular rounds of the stores in Milwaukee when he noticed that one store was having success with a unique program. They were rewarding purchases with coupons redeemable for store goods. That gave Sperry an idea: why not give out coupons that weren’t tied to merchandise from a particular store, but were redeemable anywhere in the country?
With backing from local businessman Shelly Hutchinson, he started the Sperry and Hutchinson Company, and began selling trading stamps. Here’s how it worked:
* S&H sold stamps (they looked like small postage stamps, each with a red S&H insignia on a green background) to retailers.
* Retailers gave them to customers as a bonus for purchases, ten stamps for each dollar spent.
* Customers collected the stamps in special S&H books until they had enough to trade back to Sperry and Hutchinson in exchange for merchandise like tea sets or cookware.
* Retailers who participated in the program hoped that customers would feel like they were getting something for free, which would entice them to continue to shop loyally at their stores.
* At first only a few stores across the country offered the stamps, but over the next 50 years, through economic recessions, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and two world wars, S&H’s popularity grew steadily.
Interest in the trading stamps peaked in the 1950s. Why? More people lived in urban areas with more grocery stores to choose from. Bread, milk, and corn flakes are the same in every supermarket, so rival stores started looking for a way to set themselves apart from the competition. One way was by offering trading stamps.
Collecting trading stamps seemed like a fun way to get great stuff without raising the household budget. So, with their books full of stamps, postwar consumers got televisions, blenders, transistor radios, and the most popular item, toasters.
Trading stamps became so popular that gas stations, drugstores, and dry cleaners got in on the act, too. By 1964 S&H was printing three times the number of stamps as the U.S. Post Office. At the industry’s peak in 1969, more than 80% of U.S. households were collecting stamps, and more than 100,000 stores were offering the most popular kind, Green Stamps. The S&H redemption catalog had the largest print run of any publication in the United States.
A WORLD OF STAMPS
Green Stamps was the best known, but there were many other brands of trading stamps in the 1960s. If you shopped at Piggly Wiggly’s, for instance, you’d get Greenbax, at A&P you’d get Plaid Stamps, at Kroger you’d get Top Value Stamps, and so on.
Stamps came in a rainbow of colors, too: Orange, Yellow, Red, Pink, Blue Chip, K&S Red, Triple-S Blue, Plaid, Gold Bond, Merchant Green, and World Green, to name a few. And they appeared under a dizzying array of names: Top Value, Mor-Valu, Shur-Valu, King Korn, Regal, Big Bonus, Double Thrift, Buckeye, Buccaneer, Two Guys, Eagle, Gift House, Double “M,” Frontier, Quality, Big “W,” and many more.
The stamps had an actual cash value- if you brought in 1,000 stamps, S&H would cheerfully hand you $1.67. But no one cared about the stamps’ cash value when catalogs offered tempting merchandise like clock radios and Corningware. What else could you get for your stamps? Fur coats, purebred pets, European vacations, even life insurance policies. King Korn got a lot of publicity in 1969 by offering a work of classic American painter Thomas Hart Benton for 1,975 books.
(Image credit: Larryzap)
In fact, publicity-hungry trading stamp companies -always looking for a way to get a leg up over their many competitors- were willing to negotiate with collectors to provide just about anything equal to the cash value of the collected stamps. Some of the more unusual items:
* An eight-passenger Cessna airplane (paid for with Gold Bond stamps by a church congregation).
* A pair of gorillas (paid for with 5.4 million Green Stamps by an Erie, Pennsylvania, school who wanted to supply their local zoo).
* A donkey for an overseas church missionary.
* An elephant (also intended for a local zoo).
* School buses, ambulances, and fire trucks.
TAKING A LICKING
Eventually, trading stamps became victims of their own popularity. So many stores were giving them away that there was no longer any reason to shop loyally at one store.
The rampant inflation of the 1970s didn’t help, either. Businesses that gave trading stamps were perceived as charging higher prices. The 1973 oil embargo and gas shortage killed the program at gas stations, too, since consumers would shop at the gas station with the lowest prices, not the station that gave Green Stamps.
But trading stamps didn’t die out completely. S&H had $1 billion in annual revenue in 1981 when the company was sold and continued limping along for the next 18 years. By 1999 fewer than 100 stores offered Green Stamps. That’s when Walter Beinecke, the great-grandson of founder Thomas Sperry, bought back S&H.
IF YOU CAN’T LICK ‘EM…
Under Beinecke’s leadership, S&H Green Stamps have been recast for the digital age- they’re now Greenpoints, with bar-coded cards customers swipe at the registers of participating stores. (Don’t worry, the company still redeems old gummed stickers.)
Greenpoints offers ten points for every dollar spent, just like it did in the 1960s. But goods are now valued accordingly. The leather wallet that cost one book of Green Stamps (1,200) now costs 9,600 Greenpoints. Four towels that could be bought with 1,200 Green Stamps cost 14,400 Greenpoints today. Camcorders go for 200,000. The prizes consumers want have changed, too. People no longer want to redeem their points for towels or hair dryers- they’re more interested in digital cameras, movie tickets, and restaurant cards. [Ed. note: Greenpoints are now redeemable for gift cards only.]
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Unstoppable Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!