1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 32

Stamping Ground


THE trading stamp war has now mobilised Boots, Sains-

bury's, Marks and Spencer, W. H. Smith, Mac Fisheries and Victoria Wine (to name but a few) into a resistance movement under the banner of the Distributive Trades Alliance. What are they afraid of, and whose side. are the public supposed to be on?

The pressure on the public and on retailers to accept trading stamps is indicative of the anxiety of the big operators to get the stampede moving faster. As there have been trading stamps, in Some form or other, in Britain since the 1890s we

may draw the conclusion that the ordinary shop-. per, while not disinclined to favour something for nothing, has a deep-rooted suspicion that she may be getting nothing for something.

Hearing that the annual gross turnover of the American stamp companies reached $760 million

last year, I was intrigued to learn that Sperry

and Hutchinson, who have lately crashed into the British trading stamp business, assure us that not

more than five per cent of stamps go unredeemed. On a lightning calculation that works out at $38 million.

When you remember that to acquire a gift worth I5s. it is necessary to save stamps from purchases amounting to £31, is it any wonder that people grow impatient and let the matter slide? Another little exercise in arithmetic taught me that a washing machine would cost £4,000 in stampS. It would take a few years shopping at the local greengrocer before that transaction could. be completed. But this is not the real edge of the argument against trading stamps. What makes them un- desirable in the long run is that they must act as an inflationary influence on retail prices. True, the stamp traders say that they never equip neighbouring competitors with stamps, and also that they try to build up a 'family' of shops in an area (a grocer, a butcher, a hairdresser, a tailor, etc.). This would be fine if there were only one company dishing out stamps and books to stick them in but there arc more than twenty and still more joining in. What happens, then, when every retailer is in cahoots with one of these? Whichever shop you go to, stamps will be offered, green, blue, yellow or tartan. How does the bewildered customer de- cide where to buy her joint, her dozen eggs or her self-raising flour? Does she keep on tile all the gaudy, glossy catalogues, and devise a ready reckoner of stamp values and retail prices, or does she persuade her family to move into a town where- there are still some shops that give good service, good quality and competitive prices? Lord Sainsbury put his finger on a sensitive spot when he said in a recent speech that so far it has been the small and inefficient retailer who has taken to the stamp business. And the Green Shield operators make no pones about claiming that part of their service includes making the re- tailer more efficient, because unless he increases his turnover spectacularly the added cost of the stamps will be too much for him.

Looking at it from the shopper's point of view, the stamps are liable to'be a nuisance. It is bad enough getting served and waiting for change, especially in the less super supermarkets, but when the wait is lengthened while the assistant works out the value of the stamps and tears them off the sheet, the inclination to refuse them is strengthened irresistibly. How much better if the shopkeeper clipped a few pence off his prices.

There was once a laundry that, each spring, put a bunch of primroses in the box with a thank-you for prompt payments in the previous twelve months. And even longer ago, a sauce manufacturer delivered free sample bottles to houses—by donkey-cart.

Charming? Why, then, do we object when Unilever or Proctor and Gamble present us with a plastic rose or an unsolicited comb? The ob- jections seem to come from an intellectual minority; judging by the herbaceous border of scentless wonders that has filled grocers' shops ever since the success of the Daz rose, the majority certainly do not object • at all. And Consuming Interest would, have had not the slightest objection to getting the £1,000 solitaire diamond ring Cutex recently gave away . in a contest centred on their hand-lotion.

But . . 'Free!' Is it free? Clearly the cost of these gimmicks has to be built into the price at some point. With a nicer regard for EngliSh than the supermarketeers show, some Australian and American states have banned the 'free' offer on the grounds that it is a you-can-have-it-if- you-buy-something-else offer, but not free.

The other main body of objectors are the grocers themselves, whose shelf-space is getting increasingly cluttered up with beakers and brushes and ballpoints and all the rest of the bonanza. But to silence them the promoters now

produce dealer-loaders, the expressive term for gifts to bribe retailers to load up•sFrith Brand X.

If there were any significant difference in the quality or price of the detergents and tinned soups and breakfast cereals being promoted, there would be no need for gifts to build up new patterns of brand-loyalty. Only where brands, are virtually indistinguishable is it necessary to create some artificial `plus.' There is a limit to the amount of birdseed or mustard or soap the nation can consume; therefore, to increase sales, a manufacturer must seduce customers from their loyalty to his competitor. And so firms' rivalries are fought out in a war of the (plastic) roses.