Friday Rant: Canadian Consumers May Lose Their Beloved Alternative Currency

It's endlessly interesting that so many countries and cultures, that we believe we know well, have spend mechanisms that are held dear, yet are virtually unknown outside their borders. To wit, according to today's WSJ, our Northern neighbor's consumers have revered Canadian Tire money as an alternative currency for over a half century. But alas, the spend visibility and behavioral insight offered by plastic loyalty cards portends the end of tire dollar spend.

I know I'm more than a little anachronistic at heart when old conventions are supplanted by new technology -- I've not yet succumbed to EZ Pass for instance -- but there's just something about having hard currency, coupons, bonus dollars and other forms of physical chits in hand. They're more real. And while I have nothing to hide, I also like to keep some spend anonymous, off the radar, in my head and nowhere else. Many of my fellow North Americans evidently agree.

The Journal describes how "Canadian Tire Corp., an iconic retailer here that sells everything from car batteries to hockey sticks, hands out Canadian Tire money to loyal shoppers. Customers receive the brightly colored coupons, equivalent to a fraction of their shopping bill, at the checkout... Over the years, the coupons -- printed on counterfeit-resistant paper in denominations ranging from five Canadian cents (about five U.S. cents) to two dollars -- have gained currency outside the store's doors. Collectors covet older bills and anticipate print runs of newer ones. [and] One group auctions off rare Canadian Tire bills and publishes a newsletter devoted to the coupons." Even eBay serves as a kind of currency trading exchange for tire dollars.

Quite incredibly, "About one billion bills are in circulation across Canada, worth an estimated 100 million Canadian dollars... But now, Canadian Tire is starting to phase out the program in a shift toward a plastic loyalty-card system... The company... thinks a card would help to better understand what customers are buying and fine-tune offers directly to them." Probably so, but I can't help but wonder if maybe the Canadian government has a hand in dissolving this charming currency alternative to maximize their VAT.

In any case, at the risk of overly digressing, I very fondly recall the 50's and 60's Green Stamp promotions. Many merchants issued Green Stamps upon check out and millions of young baby boomers -- like me -- were dutifully required to paste them in books that could then be redeemed at ubiquitous Green Stamp Stores for merchandise from toys to linens to dishware and electronics. It was a form of savings thrift and sense of mercantile community fostered by an alternative currency that -- for better or worse -- (though I believe worse) has disappeared from America. Oops, make that the U.S.

After I post this, I think I'll walk to my neighborhood watering hole and redeem some of their wooden nickels I've been collecting. I know they're here somewhere -- hope they still take them.

- William Busch

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