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Don't forget to collect your stamps!

12:00am | & News

Remember when you could buy things not with cash or credit or debit cards, but with books filled with Green Shield stamps?

In the 1960s and '70s these little trading stamps were all the rage. Consumers collected them whenever they bought goods from participating retailers, including petrol stations, painstakingly sticking the stamps into their special stamp saver booklets.

When they had collected enough they could trade them in for goods listed in the Green Shield Gift Catalogue, where the items were displayed not with a cash price but with the number of completed saver books needed to 'buy' them. Special 'gift shops' were opened across the country where people could take their completed books to exchange for the items they wanted.

Trading stamp schemes had been popular in America for many years before businessman Richard Tompkins introduced his Green Shield scheme to Britain in 1958. It quickly took off, proving popular with retailers keen on having an extra incentive to lure shoppers to their stores. Posters and signs promising "We give Green Shield stamps" could soon be seen in shop windows and outside stores across the UK.

Tesco founder Jack Cohen was an advocate of the scheme and signed up in 1963, his chain of supermarkets becoming one of the biggest backers of Green Shield. Several fuel companies also signed up, issuing the stamps at their petrol stations.

For consumers there was an obvious benefit of getting "something for nothing" by making sure they used outlets which gave Green Shield stamps. The danger was that having set their hearts on a particular item in the gift catalogue, they would spend far more than they might otherwise have done just to collect enough stamps to secure it.

At the scheme's height stamp-collecting mania – fuelled by TV advertising campaigns ­­– swept the country, with several rival schemes also set up or imported from America. But Green Shield, which had now built an impressive new HQ office block on the outskirts of London, remained the biggest player.

Initially one Green Shield stamp was issued for each 6d (2½ new pence) spent by a shopper. This meant large numbers of stamps had to be issued and stuck into books. Later, larger denomination stamps were issued, worth 10, 20 and eventually 40 of the standard stamps.

Even then, lots of stamps were needed to exchange for gifts – 25 books for a small transistor radio, 60 books for a record player and 100 for a TV set. Shoppers started to realise that by shopping at cheaper stores and buying only what they really needed they could save the cash needed to buy these goods far more quickly than by collecting stamps.

By the mid-70s the cracks were starting to show and in 1977 Tesco quit the scheme, opting instead for strong cost-cutting and discount deals to attract shoppers. Other retailers followed suit and soon the filling stations became the main outlet for Green Shield. Company car drivers didn't mind how much their fuel cost as they weren't paying the bill, so they would still use more expensive petrol stations if they could collect the Green Shield stamps, seen as a perk.

As more retailers abandoned the scheme, sales slowed and shoppers became disenchanted at how many stamps were needed, the scheme was changed so that people could use part stamps and part cash to exchange for gifts in the catalogue.  Under this "Green Shield New Deal", the proportion of cash accepted was slowly increased until eventually the goods could be purchased outright, without the need for any stamps.

With trading stamps now a smaller part of the equation, Green Shield's catalogue stores, warehouses and vehicle fleet were all rebranded in 1973, giving birth to Argos. It continued to accept Green Shield stamps in full or part payment for goods in the new Argos catalogues until 1983, when the stamps were suspended. A brief revival launched "New Green Shield Stamps" in 1987, but it was short-lived and the scheme finally ceased in 1991.

To watch a 1963 British Pathé newsreel on the advent of trading stamps, click here.

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