What is the role of the retailer in charitable giving?

Many retailers get involved in supporting charitable causes, especially during the holidays. We asked ourselves the question, what should be the role of the retailer in giving? More and more people today are disconnected from charitable organizations, but have found that brands and retailers are a key gateway to giving. As experts in shopping culture, we specifically looked into the role of the retailer for the shopper with giving on their mind.

With this topic on my mind, while meandering an outdoor mall, I witnessed a key ingredient of giving. Many shoppers, on a break from the rigors of holiday shopping, were enjoying the music of a man playing the guitar. Suddenly, a sweet little girl darted out and handed the guitarist a dollar. Stunned by her courage and cuteness he stopped playing mid-song, accepted the dollar and responded with a wink, a smile and asked, “what is your favorite christmas song?”

The situation demonstrated an age-old principle of giving — reciprocity. What does the giver receive in return for the gift? In this case, and most of the time, its a warm, heartfelt ‘thanks.’ It’s the Salvation Army representative at the storefront ringing the bell and saying ‘Thank You’. Therefore, what does this tell us about the role of the retailer in giving? As the facilitators at the point of giving, are retailers the means of reciprocity? GAP and other retailers, in order to bring more awareness and raise money to eliminate AIDS Fund, sold t-shirts with the Product Red Campaign. Functionally, the reciprocity was a fashionable t-shirt on the back of the giver, but moreso the t-shirt provided the giver a way to signal and show the cause to which they gave. A new offering called CherryCard.org provides participating retailers $.25 cent cards to distribute at the point of sale. Patrons then go online and give the donation to the charity of their choice. In this way, the retailers facilitate the reciprocity through enabling customers to choose where their money goes.

On the other hand, as researchers of shopping culture, we’ve heard that ‘transactional giving’, giving that occurs at the checkout counter, isn’t resonating with shoppers. Radio Shack experienced some online backlash earlier in the year from their donation request via the card-swiping checkout machine. Unlike the Salvation Army representative, who smiles and thanks the giver for their dollar, the card-swiping machine or other forms of transactional giving aren’t providing a key ingredient in the system of giving — reciprocity.

Much more exploration needs to be done to understand retailers’ role in cause-based giving. But it appears that when retailers go beyond simply accepting the gift to facilitating reciprocity they better connect with shoppers.