Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Thanksgiving tradition comes to a sad end

Remember trading stamps?  No, of course you don't, they happened before you were born, so they mean as little to you as manual lawnmowers, the Pyramids or the crank that you used to have to start a car with.

The way it worked was, you'd buy stuff, usually groceries, and you got x-number of stamps for every dollar you spent.  And you'd save the stamps in these books and when you got enough you could trade them in for damn near everything you could think of; appliances, jewelry, I heard one guy got a car.  You could get, say, a blender with 15 books of stamps.

The trick was, of course, if you counted up all the money you SPENT to get that blender, it was like 400 frillion dollars, and the blender was for sale at the store next door for like 15 bucks. 

But the Trading Stamp industry latched onto a truism of human thought - we will go to great lengths to get something for free.  Even if it's only for "free", and the time and resources spent obtaining it far outbalanced just spending the money.

In our modern world, trading stamps have been supplanted mainly by airline miles, credit card reward points and those saving club cards you get at the grocery store.  They all follow the same model - offer "rewards" for spending money, at a return rate of a fraction of a percent, knowing full well that only a percentage of your customers will even bother to redeem them, but the offer will still be alluring enough that it will cause a good number of people to do business with you anyway.

For example, for every 250 "points" (usually at a dollar spent per point) you earned at the store, you'd get a 5% coupon off your next order.  Your NEXT visit, mind you.  So they've ALREADY got you coming back.  And in your head you're scheming "I'll show them, I'll buy a whole LOT next time, and really make that discount coupon PAY!"  Oh, yeah, brilliant.  Spend twice as you would usually, making the store an extra 95% in sales, and feel like YOU came out on top when you show your receipt that says you saved five extra bucks.  You're a genius, you.

Back in the day, the biggest extra benefit the redemption center got from you was your name and address, which they'd sell to mailing list companies.  Today with the amazing power of computers, your store membership cards allow them to track what you buy, when, how often, what brands you prefer, which size, and so much more data they haven't quite figure out how to analyze it yet.  But hey, ten cents off on gas every other month when you've earned enough points!

Now here's the thing - I don't begrudge the stores the right to grab that data.  I get a few coupons out of it, and I'm just not as paranoid as some people; just cynical.  You'd be amazed how much data TiVo gets from you as well, and I don't see too many people trying to get people to turn their DVRs off.

But there was one time in the year that the whole process didn't just seem worth it, it felt truly rewarding.  Starting at the beginning of November, all your reward points went towards earning a free turkey. No discount towards a turkey, a free goddam turkey. OK, yeah, the store brand, and only a frozen one; if you wanted a name brand or a fresh one, it was only a discount. But I've gotten REAL good at making a frozen turkey taste delicious - props to Alton Brown's brine recipe. And as anyone will tell you, free food always tastes better.

Now again, same rules apply - I spent 300 bucks to pay for that "free" turkey. Plus, once you got that turkey, you spent that much and more for the trimmings, side dishes, throw-away roasting pan, and all the other stuff you need to make that "free" turkey taste all the better.  And come on, you're not just gonna walk in, pick up the bird and go buy everything somewhere else.  And like I said before, there's an indefinable rush as that monstrous bird shows up on your receipt as "$0.00".  Especially if, as I always did, you dug DEEP in the freezer to find the biggest goddam behemoth that the promotion would permit.  Screw those people happy with a 14-pound turkey, this slip of paper says "up to twenty pounds" - I am not leaving with anything under ninteen-five.

So everybody wins, right? 

Apparently not.

I only just found out our local Giant chain was not doing the free turkey promotion this year.  I'm crestfallen.  I just assumed it was happening, so when I asked how close I was to my certificate, and they said they weren't doing it, I literally didn't know how to process the news.

I haven't paid for a turkey since I moved to PA. The free turkey has become as big a Thanksgiving tradition as...well as the turkey.  Yes, I can afford the turkey, but as anyone will tell you, free food TASTES better, even if it's free food you had to spend 300 dollars to earn.

I know in past years the response has been big enough that they've run out of turkeys in many locations.  Doesn't seem to be a problem this year - they were stacked up like cordwood in Whitehall. Likely because people found out they were gonna have to pay for the damn things.

I'm sure this change somehow saves the chain money; the amount of money people needed to spend to shore up enough points probably didn't pay for the turkey this year.  But this strikes me as another one of those short-term smart, long-term foolish moves that a lot of companies have made this year.  It's another one of those "last straw" things that have been making people grow very upset with companies they formerly had very high opinions of.  And if it's companies they already didn't have high opinions of, it was close to an act of war.

Look at the two most obvious examples this year.  Bank of America announced it was adding a five dollar fee to its debit cards, and people reacted as if Hitler had announced that since the thing with the Jews was going so well, he was going to start killing redheads as well.  The country already hated the banks, but didn't know enough about how banking worked to understand why, or exactly what about banking they hated.  This fee gave them a focus, like a magnifying glass on an ant.  The other banks backed away from BoA like it had just punched a cripple, and people started closing their accounts in protest.  A lot more just thought about it, and you know how much big business hates thinking.  So last week or so BoA announced they had changed their minds, and were not going to start charging the fee.  And they had the grapefruits to spin it like they were good guys for doing it - "We heard you".  Yeah, you screamed when we tried to squeeze your testicles all the tighter, and it surprised us, so we stopped, aren't we nice?

Netflix didn't change their mind about their price increase; they just apologized for it.  And so they lost about a million customers (and that, for once, isn't comedic hyperbole) and no end of good will, both of which they had in massive amounts six months before.  Netflix made the mistake of reminding people of one of those charges that sits on their credit cards every month, unnoticed.  Suddenly, people who had no problem getting hit for ten bucks a month heard they were gonna get hit for sixteen, and thought, "Heck, I'm not even using it NOW, why throw more money away?"

It's the perfect consumer transaction - paying for a service that will never be used - and Netflix lost MILLIONS because of it.  It's how Blizzard makes the lion's share of their money - World of Warcraft accounts that people don't use, but keep alive because they mean to as soon as they get the time again.  Would you buy a gift certificate and never use it cause it's pretty? Why do you think the post office is so courting stamp collectors?  Because when they come out with Star Wars or comic book stamps, people buy sheets of them and put them away, never to use them.  More correctly, they're courting NEW stamp collectors, because true philatelists know that a stamp becomes MORE valuable if it's been used.  Often cancellation marks make a stamp even more rare.  But now collectors have the mindset that if they buy a lot of the new thing, in thirty years they'll ALL be worth a lot.  Apparently, the whole "supply and demand" thing got left in the classroom, forgotten as fast as the words to the school song.

So because the chain has decided it's not profitable enough, I'm gonna have to buy my turkey this year.  And I wish I had the fortitude to skip the turkey altogether this year, to prove a point.  But I'm weak.  And I know I'm going to buy the turkey, and the stuffing, and all the brine ingredients and the pies and all, just like last year.

Except this year I'm gonna buy it at Wegmans.


  1. I am, of course, just as irked by Giant's free turkey tradition being discontinued on account of inflation. Darn recession! Great post, as always!

  2. Giant has replied, via their Facebook page.

    "Vinnie, we recognize that family budgets are tight. Our objective at Giant is to provide as much value as possible to our customers. In addition to a foundation of low prices every day, we offer customers many ways to save both inside our stores as well as at the gas pump. Due to customer feedback around our Free Turkey program, we learned that some customers were unable to meet the point threshold in order to participate in the Free Turkey program. As a result of this feedback and continued positive feedback on the gas rewards, we’ve introduced a simpler testprogram where we have an extremely low price on the turkey and additional gas points when aturkey is purchased. As always, we welcome your feedback and have shared your comments with our marketing department to be taken into consideration as we look to modifying our offers to give our customers the best possible savings."

    O, well that explains everything.

  3. Vinnie,
    Why am I just finding out you have a blog? I remember Green Stamps because my mom and grandmother collected them. And within the last 10 yrs our local store used to give nice dishes away after you've gathered enough stamps.

    The hospital where I used to work used to give all employees a free turkey and a $25 gift card to the hospital gift shop every Christmas. Now they have stopped doing both.

    So I don't get a free one either! : (
    I enjoyed your post and FREE TURKEYS for everyone.

  4. My response to Giant's prepared statement-

    That was a very well-crafted bit of doublespeak.

    You didn't "institute a test program", you replaced the free turkey program entirely. (If I'm mistaken on that, and there are locations that are running it, letting people know that would soften the blow. Of course, odds are it'll be too late for me to shore up enough points to take advantage of it, so you win anyway.)

    A test program would have run CONCURRENTLY with the current program, to allow you to determine which one drew more use. If your goal was to allow the most people to benefit, adding a second program would have been the right answer.

    But it wasn't. This new program works out better for you, but not the consumer. Turkeys went up in price this year, more so than could be covered by the amount people would have to spend to get the free turkey. So rather than increase the number of points, you eliinated the program. You surmised it would be more annoying to increase the number of points than to eliminate the opportunity altogether. The thing is, I'll wager virtually no one remembers how many points it took last year. And for those that did, if any actually complained, you could make the very reasonable point that since the price of turkeys went up across the board, you had to increase the redemption value. And the other option would allow

    People don't like things being taken away, be they actual benefits, or things they only percieve as benefits. That's why people are upset by this move. Your cut-and pasted block prepared statement doesn't help.

    Technically, you're still giving your customers the bird this year. This one's harder to roast, is all.

  5. Technically, this isn't "my" blog, it's the one The Wife and I share for more topical and political posts.

    My personal blog, The Forty year-Old Fanboy, is for my comics nattering, and is at

  6. It gets worse.

    Apparently this IS only happening in certain locations. But the store I shop in didn't say that; they just said "We're not doing free turkeys this year." And when I said "At ALL?" They confirmed that with a shake of the head.

    Customer Service didn't have an answer as to:

    --Why the locations not doing the Free Turkey promotion were not trained to explain "We're not doing the promotion at this location, but location XYZ is", as opposed to "We're not doing the free turkeys this year", which is, at the least, misleading. At worst, well, to paraphrase Mel Gibson, they didn't lie, they just omitted certain truths.

    --How they chose the locations for this "test program". Was it based on income, amount spent per customer, number of redemptions last year, did they just redline certain areas, or was it purely random?

    Why they wouldn't just run BOTH promotions as opposed to one or the other is beyond me. Again, if the goal is to provide more options to the customer, TWO is more than ONE.

    I'm promised a call back. Watch this space.

  7. The 'free' turkey tradition is still alive and kicking at my local supermarket. But they've caught on that not everyone eats turkey, so when you qualify, you can choose turkey, ham or vegetable lasagna if you happen to be a vegetarian.

    Years ago when I actually cooked for Thanksgiving this annual supermarket rite made lots of sense. But now I go to my daughter's or to my brother and his wife's home, so no cooking on my part.

    Do I still take the turkey? Yes, it's habit. But the past two years' turkeys are still tucked away in my freezer never to see the inside of my oven. So this year I'm thinking the ham or the lasagna.

    P.S. I remember trading stamps.

  8. I remember trading stamps, but then I was born during the last year of the Truman administration. [By the way, you might be interested to know that Sperry & Hutchinson, purveyors of one of the best-known brands of trading stamps, are still in business, now offering online "rewards"; anyone who still has ancient books of S&H Green Stamps in the attic can now turn them in for shiny electronic S&H Greenpoints <>.]

    I look at circulars from several stores each week, and can verify that several of the chains have been playing games with the turkey promotion for a few years now. Pathmark, our default supermarket chain, dropped it a year or two ago and then brought it back. Complain loud and long, in writing or e-mail, to the chain management, and threaten to take your business elsewhere (and make good on the threat); it's the only feedback that will reach the ears of the decision-makers.


  9. Ah Vinnie, I remember green stamps. Mom would put them in a drawer in the parental unit's headboard, and every couple of months or so I got to lick stamps until my tongue felt like it was four times its size and glued to the roof of my mouth. For all that work I got a doll that didn't last long, but hey, Mom said it was free and I was learning what free meant. Free is not walking out of a store with a 5-stick pack of gum (I still feel twinges of guilt about that) As for the Turkey, Food Lion still has it, $35.00 purchase (excluding turkey) from about 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, and then probably again in December for Christmas.

    I"m seeing if Anomymous will let me post, this is Denise 'Wolffie' Wolff

  10. Denise, on behalf of both Vinnie and me, we did indeed get your "Anonymous" post, and we're glad you were able to join the ITRD? conversation! (We ended up getting a sweet deal on a great turkey, too! :-))

  11. Food Lion has made its way to our area, under the guise of its new sister chain, Bottom Dollar. I've been most impressed with them so far.

    I first heard of the chain decades ago on an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Their cost-saving measures, passing the proverbial saving on to the customer, are legendary.

    The chain was originally called Food Town, but when another chain with that name made contact in a legal sense, they changed the name to Food Lion, not because it was a great name, but so they could re-use two of the letters in all the sign, and only have to buy two new ones.

    Swear to God.