Trading stamps originated in the United States as far back as 1896 and were sold to retailers who then issued them to their customers. The stamps were stuck in savings books and exchanged for merchandise. Retailers built customer loyalty and customers acquired free gifts.
They began to feature in the UK in the early 1960s when Fine Fare supermarkets began to issue Sperry and Hutchinson Pink Stamps. In 1963, Tesco responded by giving away Green Shield stamps.
Established in 1958 by Richard Tompkins, Green Shield became the leading brand in the UK. Lots of shops and most supermarkets and petrol stations signed up to the scheme and gave away stamps with every purchase. At its peak, there were more than 36,000 participating stores.
The stamps were saved in books with one stamp issued for every 6d spent, and each book containing 1,280 stamps.
The books could later be exchanged for a range of household goods such as toasters, garden furniture and toys at the Green Shield stamp shop.
In 1965, the top gifts included a Regentone 19″ television (88 books), Kenwood Chef (33¼ books), and a Silver Cloud motorboat – for which you would need 170 books (217,600 stamps in total), representing a spend of £5,440 on groceries and petrol, which was the price of a large detached house at the time.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Green Shield Stamps were collected by half the British public, but high inflation in the 1970s was a body blow. Instead of offering stamps, retailers used the savings to discount their prices.
Green Shield rebranded its redemption centres as Argos warehouses in 1973, and the stamps were finally withdrawn in 1991.
A new edition of the Argos catalogue (which comedian Bill Bailey later referred to as the “book of dreams”) appeared every six months, and at its peak, it was the most widely printed publication in Europe.
In 1990, Argos was floated on the stock market. By then, it was one of the most recognised brands on the high street. Sainsbury’s completed a £1.4 billion takeover in 2016.
Richard Tompkins died in 1992.