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Checking out on checkout charity

Most of us have been asked at least once if we wanted to donate to charity at checkout, especially at the grocery store. A dollar here, two dollars there--it adds up. The practice started years ago and appears to be growing in popularity. In fact, in Canada, it is estimated that more than $35 million is raised by asking Canadians to donate at the cash register. It’s easy and convenient, but is it an effective way to support charities?

For one, customers usually don’t get to choose the charity and they don't get a tax deduction. And grocers seldom, if ever, match the donation. So, essentially, customers do most of the financial heavy lifting without the credit. Many store experience surveys suggest more than half of all customers disapprove of the practice, or feel pressured when asked to donate as they pay for their groceries. Many customers also dislike how little transparency is offered as to what happens to the donation. What is also being questioned 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 charity-focused campaigns.

A U.S. study shows 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 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 than ever. If the machine does prompt shoppers for a donation, 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 reciprocal benefit so that all parties involved 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.

For most campaigns, the onus is on cashiers to ask for a donation. For most customers, the ask comes as a surprise, as most shoppers get only 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 that 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 can be overdone and slows down the checkout process.

Grocers mean well when asking for donations, but it can cause as much customer annoyance as it does goodwill. But it is one quick way of showing the public how much grocers care about their community. However, making sure the public knows the story--where funds are going and the difference they're making--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 we see too often these days.

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