By Sylvain Charlebois, Senior Director, Agri-Food-Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University. Professor, Food Distribution and Policy, Faculties of Management and Agriculture, Dalhousie University.
Most of us have been asked at least once if we wanted to donate to charity at the checkout counter, especially at the grocery store. A dollar here, two dollars there – it adds up. Some will ask to round up the bill to the nearest dollar. The practice, which started years ago, appears to be growing and becoming more popular. In fact, in Canada, it is estimated that over $35 million is raised by simply asking Canadians to donate at the cash register. It’s easy and convenient, but many people wonder whether such a practice is really an effective way to support charities.
For one thing, customers usually don’t get to choose the charity, and won’t get a tax deduction. Most grocers, if not all, won’t match the donation, either. So essentially, customers do most of the financial heavy lifting without the credit. Many store experience surveys suggest that more than half of all customers disapprove of the practice or feel pressured when asked to donate as they pay for their groceries. Many see it as guilt giving. A dollar or two extra won’t make a difference if your card is out, or your wallet is open. Many customers also dislike the practice, given how little transparency is offered as to what happens to the money they are asked to donate. What is also being disputed is how grocers take the credit for giving to charity when funds come from their customer base. Expectations are shifting, and grocers may need to think of different ways to support these charity campaigns.
A U.S. study shows that customers are most likely to go back to the same food store, even if they have felt pressured or disliked being asked to donate. Checkout charity is far from being a deal breaker for most of us. But, in this era of disappointing corporate trickery and scandals in the food industry, a growing number of people are expecting more transparency as to what happens to money donated at the cash register. This may be one reason that self-checkouts are more popular now than ever. Nobody will ask you to donate, but if the machine does prompt you with the question, it’s much easier to say no to an automated cashier than to a human being. The same rule applies to online purchases.
Moving forward, it will be critical for grocers to create a real reciprocal benefit so that all the parties involved will win. Seeing grocers wanting to make a difference in society is desirable. But this is about forging a partnership with customers in order to help those in need. Because it is about a partnership, it is for the greater good.
For most campaigns, the onus is really on cashiers to ask for a donation. For most customers, the ask comes as a surprise, as most of us get just a few seconds to think about the cause, the donation, or the whole decision, really. Grocers could spread messages about the campaign throughout the store so customers can see how much of an impact their efforts have on the community. This could be stories, anecdotes, or other information which can make customers realize the impact of the campaign. Store posters and frequent PA announcements could help. And why not provide an incentive for customers who do donate, like a ticket to participate in a draw? Some grocers do give customers an opportunity to add their names to a wall of appreciation for their donation, but it may at times be overdone. It also slows down the store exiting process for everyone.
Grocers mean well when asking for donations and the practice will continue for some time. These programs can be complicated for grocers to implement, creating as much customer annoyance as they do goodwill. But it is one quick way of showing the public how much grocers care about their community. But making sure the public knows the story – where funds are going and how much of a difference it makes – can go a long way. Given that the practice does raise a significant amount of funds for worthwhile causes, the approach needs to be refined in order to survive the skepticism and cynicism we see too often these days.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. Follow him on twitter @scharleb.