The Best Things In Life Aren’t Free
To those of a certain age, Green Shield stamps need no introduction. To those who haven’t been around quite so long, though, they probably seem a bit baffling. The easiest way to describe them — for our acting company and student creative team, as well as for our younger audience members — has been to think of them as the Nectar points of their day, a savings system which relied more on lick ‘n’ stick and less on chip and pin.
Once the exclusive preserve of smaller local shops, by the middle of the 1960s much bigger companies (including the supermarket giant Tesco) had cottoned onto the value of Green Shield stamps in encouraging customer loyalty. The deal was simple: if you bought goods in certain places, the retailer gave you a certain number of stamps to stick into a book. Once you’d collected enough stamps in enough books, you exchanged the books for “gifts”. You could clatter excitedly down to your local Redemption Centre (if you lived within an eight-mile radius of one), or if you lived further afield, you simply sent your order form off by post and waited for your delivery.
Whereas nowadays Nectar points are mostly used simply to make a saving on the odd tank of petrol or the big Christmas food shop, Green Shield stamps could have a much greater transformative power on people’s lives. In a very real sense, those little green squares were the stuff that dreams were made of.
Such was their seductive power amongst consumers that a stamp war broke out in 1963, as rival stamp companies started competing aggressively to get their stamps stocked in as many high-profile outlets as possible. As the war escalated, so did the range of products you could get with the stamps. Green Shield produced glossy aspirational catalogues (sometimes known as the Book of Distinguished Merchandise) that left people drooling over the latest must-have gadgets that they simply MUST HAVE to enhance their homes. Every imaginable luxury could be had for nothing. Or so it seemed.
It’s worth remembering that the average consumer in 1965 would still have had vivid memories of the Second World War and its hardships which had continued long after the war itself was over. Britain had spent the last twenty years rebuilding its economy and its social infrastructure, and it had been a frustratingly slow process at times. Rationing was not phased out completely until 1954; some staples, such as bread and potatoes, actually started to be rationed in the post-war years despite never having been rationed before. Even in this new golden age of virtually full employment, the majority of married women (including many of those who had been empowered by taking on valuable jobs in wartime) were firmly confined to the home again.
The advent of domestic technology was slow to filter through to most women, who were still doing an average of 44 hours of housework per week in 1965, according to the Department of Education (compared to an average of 18 hours per week today.) But things were on the up, though. In real terms, the average take-home wage per household increased by 40% between 1950 and 1965, and the relaxation of credit controls and hire-purchase regulations boosted the demand for consumer goods. Ownership was spreading down the social scale and the gap between consumption by professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed.
In this light, it’s easy to understand Green Shield’s appeal, with its immense range of “free gifts” which could not only reduce your workload but could actually make your life more comfortable, too. The glamorous, gracious living you felt entitled to was now within your reach. That Kenwood Chef food processor you’d admired could be yours for just 33¼ books! That deluxe 19-inch Regentone television – perfect for watching Coronation Street, which you’d loved since it started in 1960 — for just 88 books! And you could give the man in your life a Silver Cloud motorboat (outboard motor not included) for just 170 books! (Jeannie Slater, in The Good Sisters, wins a million stamps, which is enough to fill 782 books.)
You could make your dreams come true with Green Shield stamps, but how much did you actually have to spend? Each savings book needed 1,280 stamps to fill it. You got one stamp for each 6p that you spent. For the motorboat, then, you would need 217,600 stamps — an outlay of £5,440 on groceries and petrol, equivalent to the price of a large detached house. Understandably, most people had to settle for something more modest.
You would still need to spend £2,816 to get the television, or £1,064 for the Kenwood Chef. These sums represented the cost of a modest house or a large family car, respectively. In practical terms, even these mid-scale luxuries were beyond many people’s saving power. But to fill one book, you would (only) have to spend £32, and at 1965 rates, that book could get you a set of six mugs in pastel colours; a mouth organ; six gold-rimmed lager glasses; a cigarette box with a paisley pattern lid; or, joy of joys, some stainless steel salad servers.
The glory days of Green Shield were not to last. When Tesco ditched its ties to the scheme in the 1970s as part of a company-wide cost-cutting exercise, the death knell for the little stamps had been sounded. Tesco’s departure undermined the retail sector’s confidence in savings schemes, and as other partners followed suit, the Redemption Centres started to offer customers the option to pay for items with a mixture of stamps and cash in order to keep their business. In no time, it became possible to buy goods outright without needing any stamps at all — and bingo — Argos was born. Sale of stamps stopped in 1983 and the scheme was axed in its entirety in 1991.