Before frequent flier miles, there were S&H Green Stamps.
Before credit-card reward programs, there were S&H Green Stamps.Before Web dollars, e-coupons and MyPoints.com, there were S&H Green Stamps.
And now, green stamps are back, this time in digital form. The S&H company recently went online with an Internet site, Greenpoints.com, in an effort to resurrect one of the most famous icons of 20th century retailing as a reward for online shopping.
The challenge for S&H will be to convince online users that a new digital currency called greenpoints -- which you can't see or hold or lick or print out -- is as meaningful as a stack of perforated green stamps that would accumulate in an old red Pyrex bowl on the kitchen counter.
At the peak of trading stamp popularity in the mid-1960s, most gas stations and supermarkets were offering them to shoppers. S&H operated 800 free-standing redemption centers nationwide, and in the mid-1960s it printed more stamps than the Postal Service.
Each stamp had a pale green background embellished by a jaunty red "S&H" logo, a serial number and fine print that read "Value 1 2/3 mills," which meant that you could redeem it for cash. But when I was a child, nobody I knew would have considered trading green stamps for mere money; they were worth far more than that.
For my family -- sitting around the kitchen table for hours, licking that tapioca-flavored glue and filling Quick Saver Books until the pages began to warp and sag under the weight of wet stamps -- the experience provided the opportunity to ask the big questions: Were we the sort of people who would redeem our hoarded stamps for the kinds of sensible items that you could really build a postwar lifestyle around, like a 12-cup coffee percolator or a toaster? Or would we blow everything on something frivolous, like that family down the block who redeemed their stamps for a basketball that their kids lost the next day?
Green stamps confirmed us as proud members of the first generation that succumbed to the heady lure of fancy new appliances. "That was the year," my mother said, remembering one green stamp purchase in 1969, "that we upgraded from a two-slice to a four-slice." And toast never tasted so good.
Long after the popularity of green stamps waned in the 1970s, the S&H logo still exerts a powerful pull on nearly everyone who was old enough back then to lick. "The most compelling thing about S&H Green Stamps," said Melissa Shore, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, "is that whenever I tell someone that the company is entering the online market, people immediately begin to relate an emotional story about their experience of growing up with S&H Green Stamps. They have strong brand equity and a hundred years of experience."
So it is understandable that S&H wants to repackage the old-fashioned appeal of green stamps into something the company's executives describe with straight faces as a "complete loyalty solution."
"This is a company founded in 1896," said Walter Beinecke, the executive vice president of Greenpoints.com and a great-grandson of an S&H founder, Thomas Sperry. "But we're also a 104-year-old dot-com startup."
Beinecke's family sold the company in 1981, but last year he led a group of investors who bought S&H in the hope of re-inventing the incentive program in a digital economy. "Rather than licking and sticking stamps as a family," said Rod Parker, president of Greenpoints.com, "today's family will go to the Web site and see how many points they have and what they can get, and think, 'Wow, this can be rewarding.' It's today's culture. It's fast, it's simple and you never have to leave the house."
But how do you persuade people to abandon the physical sensation of holding and licking a stamp? This is the same question that the E-Stamp Corp. confronted after beginning to sell digital stamps online last year.
"We found that in the consumer market, people were tied to the physical stamp," said Nicole Eagan, E-Stamp's senior vice president for sales and marketing, "and we actually bridge the electronic and physical worlds, because you can buy the stamps in the e-commerce world but then you can still print them out." You can print it on Avery labels and peel it off and stick it on the envelope, or you can print it right on the envelope, or you can print it on a document to show through a window envelope."
Postage, of course, is very palpable: You need it to mail in the bills. But the points and coupons behind Greenpoints.com and a number of other online incentive programs that arrived on the Internet months ago -- like MyPoints.com, ClickRewards.
com and FreeRide.com -- are less tangible. Greenpoints.com will also offer shoppers offline opportunities to earn points, Parker said. One merchant, the Foodtown supermarket chain, has started the program in 10 stores in the New York metropolitan area.
Shoppers keep track of their points with a card that looks like a credit card, Parker said, and will be able to redeem both offline and online greenpoints.
To be successful, the programs have to offer rewards that today's jaded shoppers really believe are worth earning. Airline mileage? Yes. The opportunity to donate your accumulated points to charity? Maybe. Toasters? No.
Many of the 300 rewards that you could earn when Greenpoints.com began recently were easy-to-earn items like a movie theater ticket (2,400 points) or five $1 gift certificates for Wendy's fast food (2,400 points).
You earn 20 greenpoints for each dollar spent. Does that really feel like a reward to today's shoppers? If you manage to accumulate more than 100,000 greenpoints, you could get something of real value, like a 13-inch Panasonic color television (141,600), a travel certificate for a round-trip domestic flight on Continental Airlines (149,000) or a ski vacation in Canada (249,000). But at the introductory rate of 20 points per dollar, you would have to spend $12,450 to get the ski vacation.