Hard to lick loyalty – unless it’s Green Shield Stamps

A Different View with Dave O’Connell

Loyalty, they say, has to be earned – it cannot be bought. But tell that to the purveyors of loyalty cards, because if you spend enough to get the stamps, everything from free coffee to cheap haircuts can be yours.

You can even get a computer for your child’s school, admittedly only if you spend the equivalent of the national debt on groceries – or if you only have a million for meat and veg, you may have to settle for a plastic football.

Clothes stores have swipe cards which give you money off if you sign up by email and continue to be inundated with special offers on runners and tee-shirts until your inbox is full to overflowing.

Indeed there’s a high price paid for loyalty in the commercial world we inhabit – the average wallet now has more loyalty cards than credit cards.

But it’s not a new phenomenon – do you remember Green Shield Stamps?

You’d get yards of them to stick into your booklet, and eventually you’d collect enough books to get a set of saucepans which would duly arrive in the post.

When all of this started back in 1958, one stamp was issued for each 6d – half a shilling – that was spent on goods, so large numbers of stamps had to be stuck into the books.

The problem was that you effectively needed to spend £12,000 to buy a TV for example – at a time when the average colour television cost around £350.

At a later stage, a second denomination was added, worth ten of the original stamps, which somewhat alleviated this problem. But you’d still have a sore tongue by the time you were finished licking for your set of delft.

Indeed – and as Michael Caine might say, not many people know this – it was the Green Shield Stamps that led to the formation of Argos.
As sales slowed, Green Shield Stamp catalogue shops began to offer part stamp redemption and part cash, for the goods in their catalogue. The proportion of cash accepted was slowly increased until the goods could be purchased, outright, without the need for any stamps.

And in time, the catalogue stores, warehouses and vehicle fleet were re-branded as Argos in July 1973.

The Green Shield Stamps actually lasted until the early nineties although they had really had their day by the early eighties – but by then everyone was in on the loyalty act.

Petrol stations bought your loyalty with other kinds of gimmicks – when Esso had an outlet across from the hospital (where Tesco is now), I can recall a coin collection of the England 1970 World Cup squad.

I wasn’t driving at the time obviously – because boys under ten years of age only do that in Tallaght – but it was the prospect of acquiring a tatty gold coin bearing the head of Bobby Moore or Peter Bonetti or Bobby Charlton that steered us, literally, to the same garage every time.

And because everything eventually turns full circle, petrol stations are back with a modern version of the old routine. Topaz has announced that it is investing €3 million into the roll-out of a new loyalty app.

So no doubt it will have bells and whistles and email alerts and bonuses and incentives and whatever you’re having yourself, and the inventors will stand back and admire their work in the way that their forefathers did when they came up with the wheel.

But the truth is that it’s just a variation on a well-worn theme – and for our generation they can try all they like, but they’ll never manage to lick Green Shield Stamps.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.