Morpheus on… Argos – A Tale Of Redemption

Okay, this one is for under-35 Brits. Watching a couple of recent standup concerts from England made this historian realize there’s a whole generation in The Old Country who do not understand the concept of Argos – or its latter day imitators. You see, the success of Argos is the Commercial World’s biggest FLUKE.

For its origins, we need to travel back over a CENTURY, to Victorian America (now THERE’S an oxymoron if I ever heard one) for it was then and there that a device called the Trading Stamp made it’s debut.

These days, most people are aware of “loyalty cards” and the fact that they tie you to ONE shop or chain of shops. But trading stamps had no such limitation. ANY shop that displayed the logo of the stamp company issued them. Collect enough and you got STUFF for them.

And one of the first was a company called S & H Green Stamps. But we don’t care about them, so let’s travel forward to 1958. A British entrepreneur named Richard Tompkins was travelling across The States and observed this phenomenon – and since Britain was now beginning to recover from the financial constrictions of WW2, he decided the time was ripe to introduce the experience to its citizens.

He called his products Green Shield Stamps. The way they worked was he bought stuff, put it into a catalogue, then sent reps round to shops – ANY shops – who would buy the stamps, the books to stick them in and window stickers to advertise the fact they issued them. Then they undertook to GIVE the stamps away with their goods, while Green Shield undertook to redeem them.

For the shops, it represented a small drop in profits. But in exchange for increased turnover, it made good business sense. “Do you give stamps? No? I’ll go elsewhere.” Thus it was that before long, not wishing to be outdone by their competition, EVERYONE gave stamps. Food shops, petrol stations, tobacconists (remember them?) chemists, hookers, EVERYONE.

Even S & H Green Stamps belatedly hopped across The Pond and set up a rival concern. But since Dick had called HIS outfit GREEN Shield, they had to change their name. So in a blinding flash of inspiration, they renamed THEIR products (just for the British market) S & H PINK Stamps. The War Of The Colours was ON – but having established themselves first, Green won.

However, what goes up must come down. In the early Seventies, Britain suffered a major recession and companies were getting TIRED of issuing interminable stamps – and now that everybody gave them, the playing field was level, the advantage gone. But to KEEP it level, they had to dream up a worthwhile REPLACEMENT. Enter: loyalty cards. A bonus – AND a way of monitoring customers.

Which meant Green Shield’s bubble had burst. So Dick did what all business- men do when their business is falling apart. He went on holiday. To Greece, in fact. Specifically, to a city called – you guessed it – ARGOS. It was then that he had a Silly Idea.

The thing was, the major part of his business were the many hundreds of “Redemption Centres” where people would come with their books of stamps to swop them for the STUFF. But when setting up the concern, Dick had realised that giving people more of the same goods they had been buying to OBTAIN the stamps in the first place would seem like nothing more than a piffling DISCOUNT – which of course is what it was.

And so he’d come up with the idea of filling his redemption centres with little “luxuries”. Gifts to oneself – or others. Thus the redemption centres had become treasure troves of slightly luxurious GOODIES. The sorts of things one wouldn’t normally buy as everyday items. Dick had unintentionally cornered a market. The then-rare, but now-common, Gift Shop.

Also, the redemption centres were unlike normal shops. Since it was easier to warehouse goods and just display one of each item, he had come up with the idea of The Catalogue. You came in with your books, looked through one of the by-now ENORMOUS catalogues of Delights, selected your delight, filled in a little slip with its Number, took it to the counter where a school-leaver would shuffle off through The Doorway To A Place Of Enchantment to find it – and sit expectantly.

So Dick figured since he had cornered this market and peculiar style of shopping, why not just carry on with it, using CASH? Sure, he’d continue to honour the stamps, for as long as they kept coming – and even accept part-cash, part-stamps. They wouldn’t last long. One of the perks of his business was the amount of stamps that got lost or just thrown away by those who disliked the taste of the gum or couldn’t be arsed sticking them in the books (and another was that his redemption centres were shoplifter-proof).

Silly idea? Maybe. But it WORKED!

Having got used to the kind of goodies Dick purveyed and the odd way they were delivered to them, the customers kept on coming. All Dick had to do was change the sign over the door…



                                                                        …and teach the school-leavers how to make change. Simple. And thirty-five years on, Argos prevails.

So if YOU wondered how these big shops, with their eccentric wares and bizarre method of retailing came to be – wonder no longer. I’ve given you their history which I know to be true, because as an ex-Brit of fifty-five summers, I was THERE!


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