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AROUND TOWN / BEVERLY BEYETTE

The Chips May Be Down, but Don't Count 'Em Out

August 19, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE

Somewhere out there in attics and basements and bureau drawers lurk thousands of little booklets with a smiling chipmunk on the cover and, painstakingly pasted inside, row upon row of little blue squares.

Remember Blue Chip Stamps?

In the '60s, they were ubiquitous throughout the Southwest. Fill up your tank, get stamps. Fill up your larder, get stamps.

And, when you were done licking and pasting, you hurried to the nearest redemption center and came home with a lamp or a picnic cooler or maybe a folding card table.

"There were an awful lot of people who furnished their houses with stamps," reflects Blue Chip president Robert H. Bird. "They never had to buy a sheet."

When stampmania peaked, in the early '70s, tens of thousands of retailers offered Blue Chips. In Southern California alone, there were more than 90 redemption centers.

Today, the merchants are down to the hundreds and, in 1985, the last redemption centers closed. (Collectors now get their goods by mail order.) Blue Chip's still around but, Bird says, "so small you're not seeing it any more. Our main customers now are bowling centers," where stamps are given out as promotions.

Blue Chip's stamp service revenues are down to about $1 million a year. Just what happened to that happy chipmunk post 1970, when the company's stamp revenues rocketed to an all-time high of more than $100 million a year?

Well, Bird explains, the stamp industry was hit with a double whammy in the early '70s: grocery coupons and the oil crisis.

Supermarkets began discounting and abandoned stamps. "They just felt they were giving away something for nothing," he says.

And, where once gas stations on all four corners of an intersection might give Blue Chips and engage in stamp wars--"TRIPLE STAMPS! 5X STAMPS!"--proprietors succumbed in 1973-74 to government pressure "not to promote the use of gasoline."

In effect, Bird says, the trading stamp industry was "clobbered" and has never really rebounded.

But wait--don't toss those yellowing stamp books. "If they suddenly appear, they're good," Bird promises. Ditto Ken Berke, vice president of Sperry and Hutchinson (S & H) in New York, the industry's other big player.

First, and still the biggest, S & H is now only a token presence in California--a few markets and truck stops. "We don't do business in the big cities any more," says Berke. But Green Stamps are still big elsewhere and 100 redemption stores remain in other states, as well as a mail-order center in Atlanta.

The Southland has been the home of Blue Chip since 1960--four years after it started up in Northern California. At headquarters in a former auto plant in the City of Commerce, two women check each incoming stamp book, making sure pages are properly filled. Then books are boxed for mulching.

In an adjacent warehouse, about 1,500 mail orders, most of them from California, are filled each month. Last year's catalogue still offered some 900 items, from croquet sets to crock pots. But the newest one is pared down to 31 of the most-wanted, such as cameras and cassette players. Blue Chip has cut its overhead and hiked the value of those stamps: Fewer books "buy" more.

So long as orders flow in, Bird reasons, "It always revives the hope that the program will turn up."

The company, now owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.--whose holdings also include See's Candies--hasn't made money on merchandise for years. When Blue Chip sells stamps to retailers, it gets its money up front and it's theirs to invest until those stamps are redeemed.

In the '60s, when trading stamps were as much a part of Americana as watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights while dining from a foil tray, 97.5% of stamps were redeemed. But, as Blue Chip became sort of invisible, the rate plummeted.

How many stamp books are still in limbo? "Nobody knows for sure," Bird says, but "our liability for redeeming those stamps is certainly in excess of $10 million, at a minimum. The IRS would agree with that."

So, bundle up those books and call (800) 824-0655 for redemption instructions. "It doesn't bother us in the least," says Bird. "We're still occasionally getting them back to the late '50s."

The Joy of Golf

For some, it seems, the golf drive is stronger than that other well-known drive.

Our mail brings a new Hyatt Hotels survey, "Golf and the Business Executive," which discloses that 13% of the women polled and 11% of the men agreed that "golf is more important to me than sex."

Other findings:

* 18% of the men said "they hate playing golf with women," while only 9% of the women returned the compliment.

* 61% of the men, but only 33% of the women, admitted to having skipped work to play golf.

* 55% of all respondents said they'd cheated at least once. These deceptions ranged from secretly moving a ball to get a better lie (41%) to dropping a new ball while looking for the old one in the woods (6%).

The poll of 401 top business executives included 311 men and 90 women, each of whom had played at least six rounds of golf (presumably, a few of these at Hyatt hotels) in the past year.

Overheard

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, on being a newly published woman writer in the pre-liberation '60s:

"It was really felt that those of us who wrote about male subjects, like politics or society, indeed, crime and violence (were) transgressing or trespassing in some male domain. . . .

"I remember one headline over a very negative review of a play of mine: 'DETROIT HOUSEWIFE WRITES A PLAY.' At that time I was a professor at the University of Detroit. I was a professional woman with a job and it happened that I was a married woman."

Oates spoke on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air."

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