SALEM, Mass. — Once upon a time, there was money, and there were S&H Green Stamps.
Green Stamps were the alternative currency of the booming postwar consumer society of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Millions of American families received them with every grocery store or gas station purchase. They faithfully pasted the stamps into booklets and, when they had enough of them, redeemed them for appliances, furniture and other merchandise.
At their peak, Green Stamps were in 60 percent of American households and were the nation’s largest supplier of durable consumer goods. Communities pooled them to buy school buses, firetrucks, even a gorilla and an elephant for a zoo. They even inspired an Andy Warhol painting.
Now, the stamps have given way to swipe-through digital cards, offered by the latest incarnation of the company, S&H Greenpoints. But S&H Greenpoints is struggling to gain its footing at a time when credit card companies, airlines and other businesses are all offering the digital equivalent of trading stamps.
Green Stamps began fading in the 1970s, just as the Arab oil embargo wiped out the lucrative gas station business for S&H and dozens of lesser-known stamp competitors. The company had more than $1 billion in revenue but was past its prime when it was sold in 1981.
The old stamp business never quite died, and in 1999, Walter Beinecke, the great-grandson of founder Thomas Sperry (the “S” in “S&H”) bought back the company, hoping to rebuild it with a digital kick.
The company set up a Web site where people could buy from merchants, track their accounts and page through the Greenpoints rewards catalog. But the Web site never drew a big crowd. S&H Greenpoints has since reworked its Internet operation to make it more convenient to participate.
Customers earn points instead of stamps for purchases made on- or offline. They can redeem the points at a store or over the Internet.
The core business involves three grocery chains — in North Carolina, Michigan and the mid-Atlantic — encompassing 180 stores.
That is a far cry from the 20 percent of U.S. grocery stores that once handed out Green Stamps. But the company says it has passed 1 million accounts and will be profitable by the end of next year or early 2003.
The company still does about $1 million of business a year with a few scattered stores that still use the old stamps. But most people just won’t lick and stick anymore.
The catalogs are still packed with consumer goods. Toasters were the most popular Green Stamp redemption item. Today it is George Foreman grills, which cost 40,800 points, or $4,080 worth of groceries at the going rate of 10 points to the dollar.
The biggest change is the competition: Credit card companies and other businesses are running their own loyalty programs, and the new alternative currency is frequent-flier miles, which can be bought, sold and traded.
But S&H Greenpoints chief executive Rod Parker, a former executive at Time Warner, said the premise still holds: “Getting rewarded for everyday stuff is meaningful, and it really adds up.”