Argos at Forty: From Green Shield Stamps to Blue Aliens

A look back at the catalogue based retailer

Canterbury is associated with a great many things. It has a historic cathedral; there was the Canterbury Scene whose alumni included Steve Hillage. In late 1973, on Sturry Road was the embryonic colossus of catalogue shopping: today’s Argos chain, and its first purpose built store. The name ‘Argos’ took its name from a city in Greece. Whilst Richard Tompkins was holidaying in Greece, he was looking for a suitable name for his chain of Green Shield Gift Houses.

Green Shield Stamps

The history of Argos is pretty much intertwined with the history of Green Shield Savings Stamps. Shoppers would collect stamps with each purchase, lick them into a savings book and redeem non-food items after completing each book. Popular since 1896 in America, Richard Tompkins brought trading stamps over to the UK in 1958. He bought the name ‘Green Shield’ from a luggage manufacturers.

The timing couldn’t have been better: the end of the 1950s saw a consumer boon thanks to higher wages, full employment and the rise of labour-saving devices. The ‘never never’ introduced ‘easy terms’ credit payments to customers, also known as Hire Purchase. Self-service supermarkets, still pretty much a novelty in 1958, would begin their relentless rise along the High Street prior to outgrowing them thirty years later.

There was also rivalry among other trading stamp companies like Sperry and Hutchinson, Blue Chip and King Korn. By the late 1960s, Green Shield were the leading name, thanks to partly to Jack Cohen. Prior to 1977, TESCO used Green Shield Stamps as a gimmick to entice people into their stores. Petrol filling stations would also offer Green Shield Stamps. As an incentive, there would also be double and triple stamps days. Sometimes quadruple or greater volumes.

Then he realised that saving 88 books full of Green Shield Stamps for a 19″ television wasn’t going to last forever. So the Green Shield Gift Houses would become Argos stores. For a time they would also accept part-payment with Green Shield Stamps.

Argos is Born

Today, the little blue aliens in Argos’ most recent adverts wouldn’t have enjoyed licking several stamps into a book. They would have gone over to the counter, chose their item and paid in full with cash, cheque or credit card. Like they would today, though with a credit or debit card rather than cash or cheque.

Manchester’s first Argos Showroom opened on 46 – 50 Oldham Street. Today, part of it is occupied by the Chase music shop. A second store was slated for opening in their 1976 catalogue in the Arndale Centre. The 1976 catalogue had a staggering 200 pages. This Saturday’s release of the Autumn/Winter 2013-14 edition will have almost 10 times that number of pages. And a free carrier bag.

Besides offering cheaper white goods at VAT Inclusive prices, each of their stores offered film processing services. Within seven days, £2.50 (in 1976) would have offered you a high quality developing and printing service on 110, 126 and 135 films. This was cheaper than the average price of £4.08. These prices would have been equivalent to about £24 and £40 respectively (so today’s 35mm film processing prices are cheaper than they were 37 years ago)!

In 1979, it was sold to British American Tobacco Industries. At the time, they were diversifying into non-tobacco related ventures, such as groceries. They also owned the International Tea Company Stores chain and MacFisheries’ Mac Food Markets (purchased from Unilever). In 1980, the Elizabeth Duke jewellery range was introduced, the name coming from a director’s wife.

Expansion

Expansion continued throughout the 1980s. From December 1981, Tameside shoppers didn’t need to travel to Manchester for their nearest Argos Showroom. The opening of Town Square Shopping Centre in Oldham changed that with the town’s first Argos Showroom. When it opened, it was opposite the Country Larder café and adjacent to Presto. It is now a branch of Poundworld opposite a long empty TJ Hughes.

By 1983, Green Shield Stamps were no longer redeemable in Argos Showrooms, but the format of choosing items from a catalogue remained. The slight wait for one’s items, in spite of being a minor inconvenience, didn’t faze customers. Furthermore, there was little competition for white goods sales: electricity and gas showrooms remained a commonplace source for such items.

In 1990, Argos de-merged from BAT Industries and had a separate listing on the FTSE100. By then, the marketplace for non-food items was more competitive. Firstly, privatisation of England’s and Wales’ electricity boards would lead to the sale and disappearance of their showrooms from our High Streets. Secondly, the increased number of out-of-town retail parks and superstores saw the likes of TESCO and ASDA expanding non-food lines. Thirdly, the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s saw Britain in recession. All the above factors had the makings of a perfect storm, but Argos increased its out-of-town presence whilst retaining a sizeable base on the High Street.

The start of the 1990s saw the introduction of its Argos Superstore format. As well as out-of-town units, bigger town and city centre stores would be tweaked to suit the new style with bigger showroom space. At the other end of the scale were Call and Collect shops. They had smaller floor space, and as a consequence, customers had to call in another day to pick up their items instead of on the same day.

Argos Reaches Tameside and Glossop

November 1991 saw the refurbishment of The Mall shopping centre in Hyde. Its once dingy aisles were refreshed and covered with glass. Phase Two of the refurbishment would see the loss of market stalls from Howard Place. In its place would be three new units and an extension of the glass roof. One of them, in 1993, would become Tameside’s first Argos store.

Almost two years after, Ashton-under-Lyne would get its first Argos store, as part of the then new Arcades Shopping Centre. This would later be augmented with a second unit on Snipe Retail Park.

In the late 1990s, Glossop got its first Argos, but it was one of a small number under the Call and Collect format. By 2010, it got a fully-fledged Argos store in the Wren Nest Retail Park.

The GUS and Home Retail Group Years

In 1998, Argos was bought by GUS plc. Under their control, expansion continued, in the bricks and mortar and catalogue departments. With the latter, its catalogues went beyond the 200 pages of its 1976 equivalent towards the high hundreds. Product ranges increased, home delivery options were added. Internet shopping would have another positive effect, meaning it was possible to call in the store or shop from home.

It was this latter field which GUS plc majored in, as did its long serving rival Littlewoods. They came to grief in 2005 when Littlewoods’ Argos competitor Index ceased operations. Poor customer service was cited as one problem; some of their stores were inside Littlewoods department stores whereas Argos had their own units. Even so, some of the stores were in good retail territory and had the footfall. In the end, Argos bought most of their stores. For a short while, some towns had two Argos stores where there was hitherto an Argos and an Index. Oldham was one example, where the Index store occupied a unit in Spindles Shopping Centre.

2006 would see Argos spun off from GUS plc into the Home Retail Group. This included the Homebase hardware chain, acquired by GUS plc from Sainsburys. Their website was relaunched. Product reservations could also be made on their site as well as through text messaging.

In 2010, Argos began a programme of store refurbishments, though some less profitable stores were closed. The Superstore formatted Argos stores would be ‘Argos Extras’. Brighter decor was introduced. Other technological developments included on-screen announcements, self-service tills for credit and debit cards and product checkers. The stock checker devices were introduced by Index and a lasting legacy of the defunct chain.

Though today’s stores are probably unrecognisable to anyone who last visited in 1973, the little order slips and pencils and laminated catalogues are about the only constant reminders. The Argos store of 1983 would be deemed austere in comparison with today’s bright colours, chairs and real time stock displays.

Recent Developments

In spite of the refurbishment programme, Argos has had a slightly jumpy recent past. Today, the competition comes from hard discounting online retailers and superstore chains. Since 2006, TESCO, Wilkinson and Woolworths have opted for Argos style catalogue shopping sections in their stores.

Prior to Woolworths’ demise in 2008, the pre-Kingfisher era Woolworths had a foray into catalogue based shopping a la Argos. In 1975, the UK arm of its American parent introduced Shoppers’ World. They were mainly situated in North West England with fifty stores nationwide. The format was derailed by 1982’s Management Buy-In of the UK arm of F.W. Woolworth led by Geoffrey Mulcahy. In a bid to make Woolworths more profitable, among their first actions was to close the Woolco and Shoppers’ World stores. The latter chain would see most of its branches sold to Argos.

Then, in 2006, newly de-merged from Kingfisher, Woolworths reintroduced Argos style shopping with its Big Red Book. It was at best a modest success but too late to save the company. TESCO gained greater success with its Argos style catalogues. Besides the lure of one-stop shopping and free parking, there was another incentive, a similar scheme to the one which led to Richard Tompkins’ Argos Showrooms: the TESCO Clubcard. Today, all Argos stores accept Nectar Cards – ironically a 21st century riposte to the Green Shield Trading Stamps which put Argos and TESCO on the retailing map.

Little Blue Men from Outer Space

2011 onwards hasn’t been a pleasant era for retailers, thanks to the longest economic slump in living memory. In the last year, we have heard many horror stories about retailers coming, going, reforming and rationalising. Today, the Amazon word is a profanity among white goods retailers as well as booksellers. Furthermore, Argos’ profits have been hit by reduced spending power of its core clientele (working class families).

It was the joys of waiting for online orders which inspired Argos’ most recent and enduring advertising campaign. CompareTheMarket.com saw an upsurge in fortunes thanks to meerkats. Argos looked elsewhere, to a place near Earth with two moons.

The blue aliens became an instant hit. Voiced by Bill Nighy, Caroline Quentin, Trixiebell Harrowell and Benjamin Rufus, they quizzed the futility of waiting ages for online orders, whilst pushing their convenient in-store services. Then, the aliens would be put in domestic situations whilst showcasing their products. As a result, they became UK television’s best known advertising extraterrestrials since the heyday of Cadbury’s Smash. Throughout such a miserable period, they resurrected one fine art of creating a classic commercial: humour.

*                        *                        *

One wonders what’ll happen in the next forty years to our retail landscape. Will there still be room for Argos? Will the blue aliens have their own television series and further spin-off items? We honestly don’t know.

Though the core format has remained unchanged since 1973, the way it has delivered it has changed dramatically. There are now more ways to ‘Argos It’ than ever: in person, on an iPad, on a smartphone, computer, or via the self-service till in-store. Now you can insure your dog, holiday, car or home, and you can arrange breakdown cover through the RAC, if you break down by The Arcades Shopping Centre.

Here’s to another 40 years, though I dread to think how thick the catalogue would be in 2053!

S.V., 24 July 2013.

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