by Don Potter

What New Senior can forget being given the distinction of licking and pasting a kitchen drawer full of S&H Green Stamps into the collection books so Mom could go to the redemption center and turn them in for merchandise rewards? It could have been Top Value, Triple S, Plaid or Blue Chip stamps. For many years, these bonus stamp programs played a big part in determining where American families shopped.

The whole thing stated back in 1896 with two men named Sperry and Hutchinson (S&H). They began offering stamps to merchants as a way of rewarding current customers for their loyalty and attracting new ones. The concept caught on in many parts of the country, although some states had restrictions such as requiring the stamps be redeemed for cash rather than merchandise. Where this was the case, such as Wisconsin, people would actually drive to another state to find a redemption store.

Most folks viewed the stamps as a way to get “free” merchandise just by patronizing their favorite supermarkets, drug store and gas stations. This belief carried through the mid-1960s. After a series of recessions, retailers lost interest in trading stamps and began offering price discounts to attract customers who now took the stamps more or less for granted. Aggressive retailer promotion got the consumers to consider price as an immediate reward rather wait to redeem stamps for some yet-to-be-determined merchandise in the future.

It did not take long before the stamps started to disappear from the retail checkout counters. Then redemption centers closed. The stamp companies tried other ways of promoting their reward programs, but nothing really took hold. Years later the Internet came on the scene, and marketers looked for ways to sell products and services through this new medium. It was the need to differentiate, reward customers and garner new ones that brought the century old S&H rewards program to Internet retailers.

The name of the program has changed, as did S&H’s ownership (the company was bought and sold several times in recent years), but its core concept remained the same. “Greenpoints” are offered by many online retailers: Target, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Drugstore.com, Dell, Old Navy, Kmart, Flowers.com, Office Depot, Sears, Shoes.com, iTunes and others.

This phenomenon is not surprising since most marketing concepts are cyclical in nature. Aren’t the airline mileage programs a variation of this? American Express offers hotels and other vacation amenities for using the travel points. The company also has an online program to redeem the points for merchandise. Does this seem like a repackaged version of the S&H program?

Of course, the nice part of the modern stamp programs is there’s no need to have a special drawer devoted to stamp storage. And, nobody has the job of licking stamps and placing them in a book. Isn’t progress wonderful?