Monday, September 28, 2015

Point-of-Sale Philanthropy

There was once a time when debit card users could rightfully turn up their noses at the nostalgic luddites who insisted upon writing a check at the grocery. After all, check writing took so much more time and the rest of us had places to be. Now, I fear that those days might be at an end. I cannot remember the last time I only had to interact with the card pad less than three times and it has slowly been getting worse.

First you have to input your double-secret pin number, then you have refuse cash-back, and finally you would have to confirm the amount before finalizing the transaction. Now, many major retailers have added yet another step: point-of-sale philanthropy. The idea is that after you answer all of the aforementioned questions, you are asked if you would like to “round-up” or “donate” to a charity. According to an article in the Tampa Bay Times, it raises hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
If you are at a Dollar General, this would be a donation to fight illiteracy. If you are at Pet Smart, this would be a donation to help homeless pets. Even my local utility company automatically rounds up all its customer’s utility bills to the next even dollar amount unless you specifically opt-out of the program. At least in these cases, your decision regarding whether or not to donate remains relativity private. Walgreens has taken it a step further.

Last week I was suffering from a rather persistent cold and I stopped at my neighborhood Walgreens to pick up some sinus medication. For those of you unfamiliar with this blog, I believe that diligent research should be undertaken before one gives to a charity. Too often we purchase an over-priced item because we are promised that a “portion of the proceeds” go to charity. Sometimes this a significant amount and sometimes the fine print will inform you that only 1% of the profit will be transferred to an inefficiently-run foundation with a grossly-overpaid staff. So please perform your due diligence.

That being said, I had been standing in line for several minutes while the woman in front of me attempted to game the system by exploiting loop-holes in the Walgreens reward points loyalty system. There were two women behind me who, by the time my turn arrived, had already made a few comments about being in a hurry so when the cashier looked at me and asked “Would you like to round-up for cancer?” I am sure they were hoping for an expeditious answer.

Reminding myself that this poor cashier had no influence over corporate policy, I very calmly asked, “Which kind of cancer?” if only to highlight the ambiguity of the phrasing. Was it the American Cancer Society? Was it the Susan G. Komen Foundation? And, as unlikely as it might be, there was a chance it was a pro-cancer group. After all, I was being asked by someone standing in front of a wall of tobacco products. Her question was just slightly more informative than asking if I would “Like to give to charity and stuff.”

It was immediately apparent that she had never been asked for clarification and she sputtered, “I’m….not…..sure exactly…..let….me…check” The women in line behind me exhaled loudly with displeasure as the cashier shuffled through some paperwork before uncertainly responding “leukemia.” Now until I had looked into this further, I had no intention of donating that day. However, my nasal congestion and general mental fogginess caused an exaggerated delay between her response and my answer that must have appeared to be deep thought.

This undoubtedly gave the impression that I had really mulled over the pros and cons of leukemia when I shook my head more emphatically than necessary and said, “No, I’m good” as if only specific malignancies merited a 46 cent donation. In hindsight, the only thing that could have made me look worse is if I had added, “Now if it was for testicular cancer we might could have worked something out.”

By this time, the ladies behind me were probably wondering if my behavior was the result of being born without a human soul. Before I left, I thought about explaining that the type of cancer didn’t matter I just wanted some clarification so I could research it further but I feared such an explanation would ring hollow with the long-suffering patrons behind me in the checkout line. According to the Cause Marketing Forum, Walgreens alone raises between $8-10 Million each year through such programs.

I have nothing against charity, but in cases where I am audibly asked if I would like to “fight cancer” or “help children” while checking out I feel like I am being put on the spot since I know my response will be heard and judged by those behind me. It almost feels like corporate panhandling. At least if the request is made on the screen of the transaction pad I am not required to publicly acknowledge either my generosity or lack thereof.

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