Sixty years ago, in August 1957, George Gallup declared that a trading stamp "craze" had hit the country, referring to the small, brightly colored stamps customers earned when shopping at participating retailers, and which could be redeemed for merchandise. Two in three Americans in a Gallup poll that summer said they were saving or collecting the stamps.
|Gallup, June 27-July 2, 1957|
About two-thirds of those who collected trading stamps -- equivalent to 45% of all U.S. adults -- said they had ever gotten something for them. That generally meant turning in booklets of stamps at a trading stamp redemption center for anything from toasters to televisions and, in rare cases, pianos or mink stoles.
The idea behind trading stamps -- hooking shoppers on rewards to turn them into loyal customers -- reportedly dates back well before 1900, when some merchants gave out special coins that could be used at their store.
Trading stamps themselves came into existence in 1896 with the founding of the Sperry & Hutchinson Company -- the distributor of S&H Green Stamps. S&H became the top trading stamp company in the country, but there were about 200 others with names such as Top Value, Gold Bond, Merchants Green, Sav-a-Stamp and King Korn. By the 1950s, trading stamps were everywhere, and the frenzy continued into the 1960s, when stamp company sales reached as much as $1 billion per year.
Trading stamps were not free of controversy, however, as retailers increasingly turned to raising prices to cover the cost of the so-called perk. In 1957, Gallup found 44% of U.S. adults agreeing that "giving trading stamps is a bad business practice" that causes stores to raise prices. However, about the same proportion, 40%, disagreed.
Gallup didn't ask Americans about their use of trading stamps after 1957, but according to reports of stamp sales, the stamps remained hugely popular into the next decade. They eventually hit resistance during "the great inflation" of the 1970s, when customers' focus on finding the cheapest prices undermined the stamps' business model. Trading stamps have since largely disappeared, but the concept lives on digitally in store loyalty cards, now a fixture of the consumer landscape.
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