Friday, 27 February 2015

27/02/15 - Green Shield Stamps

One of my early memories, for some reason, is being at the petrol station in Liphook. I’m not sure if I’m remembering just one occasion or if it’s an amalgamation of many visits – it’s a bit blurry – but I can clearly remember the intoxicating smell of four-star and the poster for Green Shield stamps on the wall.
I was reminded of Green Shield stamps recently, and realised that it’s something I haven’t thought about for years. It’s one of those images that was everywhere when I was a kid, like yellow British Telecom vans, but suddenly fell from view and hasn’t popped up anywhere since. My mum used to collect the stamps in a little book, and I’d help her stick them in (I realise now that she was just giving me a task, rather than actually requesting my help – she was probably capable of doing it herself without too much difficulty) so that she could save up for, I dunno, a set of steak knives or a pocket calculator or something.

Green Shield stamps were introduced to the UK in 1958, and their popularity endured right through to the 1980s. The principle was pretty simple; think of it as an early version of Clubcard points, except that they weren’t limited to just one retailer. Tesco was one place you could get them, actually, but they were also available from countless independent greengrocers, hardware stores, chemists, confectioners, tobacconists, petrol stations and so on, as well as Priceright and The Cooperative. You got a stamp for every 6d you spent (this is all conceptually familiar to today’s consumer, of course), you stuck them in the book, you saved up to swap completed books for various goods. It was like Nazi Germany’s saving stamp books for VW Beetles, but without the undertones of mass murder.
As with all loyalty-bonus-thingy systems, they didn’t represent brilliant value – but that was only a concern if you were actively shopping in order to receive the stamps, rather than just collecting the stamps for money you’d have been spending anyway. In the early days, you’d have had to spend £32 before you’d filled a Green Shield book of 1,280 stamps (which was a fair amount in the 1960s – equivalent to about £590 now), which you could then swap for, say, some stainless steel salad tongs, or a set of mugs. Tenacious savers could exchange 13 books for a Kodak Brownie 8 movie camera, 88 books for a Regentone 19” television, or 170 books for a Silver Cloud motor boat! (Although you’d have to buy the outboard motor yourself…)

Rather excitingly, a stamp war broke out in 1963, with a rival system of S&H Pink Stamps flooding in from America. These were actually called ‘S&H Green Stamps’ in the US, but they changed the colour for the UK market for obvious reasons. Blue Chip stamps also appeared, as well as King Korn and a number of others. It caused all sorts of bloody running street battles between retailers (er, possibly), although Lord Sainsbury was vehemently opposed to the stamp concept - so much so that he formed the Distributive Trades’ Alliance along with Boots, WHSmith, Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and various other retailers, lobbying parliament to restrict and heavily regulate the reward stamp industry. What a killjoy.

Nevertheless, Green Shield Stamps went from strength to strength. In the 1970s, the catalogue offered a more down-to-earth set of aspirations than the speedboat dreams of the sixties, while the number of stamps-per-pound shifted necessarily in line with inflation and decimalisation: 185 books got you a Hotpoint washing machine, 140 books could be swapped for an LEC chest freezer, and you could get a Philips colour TV for 375 books. I wonder if anyone ever actually managed to save that many…?

It all started to unravel in 1977, when Tesco withdrew from the scheme in order to focus on their pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap strategy. The relative value of Green Shield Stamps was rapidly dropping, and the main outlets for them became petrol stations, aiming largely at fleet drivers who didn’t care how much they were spending, and offering double-, triple- and even quadruple-points deals. As the stamping infrastructure began to dissolve, the Green Shield catalogue started to offer part-cash redemption, meaning that if you had a half-full book you could trade it in for your set of steak knives or whatever and cover the remainder of the balance with cash. This turned out to be a bad move, as it really highlighted to people how much cheaper it would be to just forget the stamps and buy the things elsewhere. Green Shield founder Richard Tompkins had taken this catalogue shopping formula and launched Argos in 1973, and by 1983 had stopped distributing Green Shield Stamps entirely.
They were revived in 1987 – this must be the period that I’m remembering, I’d have been five at the time – but died out again after a few years.

Interestingly, it was only four years after Green Shield Stamps disappeared that Tesco introduced the Clubcard. While that is inarguably a great system for earning discounts from money that you would have been spending anyway, there was a certain backlash at the time from people who preferred the old model of collecting; after all, isn’t it more fun to receive a tangible thing – a tobacco tin or a rolling pin – that you’d actually saved up for? Feels more like a project, doesn’t it?
These die-hards are still gunning for the prizes too, despite the system having been defunct for almost a quarter of a century. Just take a look at how many Green Shield stamps and books are for sale on eBay – perhaps it’s worth filling up a few books and taking them into your local branch of Argos? You never know, Richard Tompkins might have left a secret set of instructions at the counter to ensure that the legacy of his stamp-collecting empire lived on. They might even give you a speedboat…

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