An era of the past: Trading stamps for merchandise

ALPENA — Trading stamps, Top Value, S&H Green Stamps, Holiday, Plaid, Gold Bond, and numerous other brand names were offered across America.

Baby Boomers and select others will quickly recall the merchandising concept.

There are at least two generations who have no idea what it means.

Unless you recall the Top Value Stamp redemption store in Alpena’s 100 block of East Chisholm Street. Or receiving Top Value stamps at the Kroger grocery store (now Save-A-Lot) located in the Harborplace Mall, the former A-and-P supermarket located at Chisholm Street and 3rd Avenue, or the Holiday gas station located on U.S.-23 south.

Northeast Michigan families would sit at their kitchen table, licking those trading stamps and placing them in a recordkeeping book. Then, with books filled with the trading stamps, they were taken to redemption centers for all sorts of useful items such as blankets, radios, kitchen utensils, Kodak instamatic cameras, musical instruments, sporting goods equipment, tabletop and yard games, and hundreds of other items.

According to historical accounts, the first American trading stamp concept was introduced in 1891 at the Wisconsin-based Schuster’s department store. By the mid-1950s, there were over 200 trading stamp companies.

Across the nation, including in Alpena, there were between 1,400 and 1,600 storefront redemption centers. The operators of those stores acquired vast merchandise at wholesale prices. The merchandise was prominently displayed at each store and promoted with color catalogs.

In most instances, merchants acquired the trading stamps from a third-party distributor. Typically, for each 10 cents purchased, the customer would receive a stamp. A completed stamp book would traditionally have 1,200 stamps.

The entire concept of trading stamps was to build customer loyalty.

The high point of trading stamps appeared to be in 1968, with $900 million being sold.

With the advent of the mid-1970s oil crisis, trading stamps began to disappear from gas stations. Gas jumped from 30 cents to well over $1 per gallon. In addition, the fillup lines and amount of fuel which could be purchased took the glamour out of trading stamps.

During the 1980s, supermarkets began to lower prices and, rather than issue stamps, began to publish discount coupons in newspapers and store flyers and, by the 1990s, issue customer loyalty cards.

Long after the closure of Top Value and S&H Green Stamps, the nation’s last trading stamp company, Eagle Stamps, primarily located in metropolitan St. Louis, closed in 2008.

Former Kroger cashiers (white shirt and blue bow tie) can likely recall the Top Value trading stamp distribution box above the cash register. To dispense, you pushed all sorts of buttons for single stamps, a stamp valued at 10, and another valued at 50. Some weeks, The Alpena News would offer a clip-out coupon for double points.

Alcoholic beverages and tobacco products didn’t receive trading stamps.

The odds are high in an older family member’s home, tucked away in a box or in the corner of a bureau drawer, you will find some trading stamps. Better yet, a color redemption catalog. Or have a family member tell you the story of how they obtained an electric hand mixer in 1972 with trading stamps.

Jeffrey D. Brasie is retired health care CEO and frequently writes op-eds and feature stories. He is a former Alpena resident and resides in suburban Detroit.


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