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Vickroy: Charity at the checkout counter: What gives?

Stores are increasingly asking customers as they check out whether they want contribute charitable cause.  |  File photo

Stores are increasingly asking customers, as they check out, whether they want to contribute to a charitable cause. | File photo

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Updated: December 19, 2012 11:14AM



“Would you like to round up the change to help needy kids?”

“Would you like to buy a book and donate it to a local school?”

“Would you like to contribute a dollar to our food drive?”

Increasingly, shoppers are asked to open their pocketbooks a little wider when patronizing their favorite stores. That’s because more stores are partnering with nonprofits as a means of boosting their local presence or assuaging their social conscience.

Some people don’t think twice about the offers to give to a company’s cause. Last year, shoppers at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Orland Park donated some 1,200 books to Roosevelt School in Chicago Heights.

Because of shoppers’ generosity, every child in the school received a new book to take home.

“Most of our students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch,” said Mary Beth Meehan, a first-grade teacher at Roosevelt. “They just don’t have books at home.”

There’s no doubt that impromptu giving can produce great results. But a lot of consumers wrestle with a heartfelt desire to be helpful and an intellectual need to be sure the donation really is headed where it should be.

Wrestle no more. We’ve got some expert advice on how to deal with “embedded giving.”

Mark Ingwer, author of the newly released “Empathetic Marketing: How to Satisfy the 6 Core Emotional Needs of Your Customers,” said a lot of companies use “cause marketing” to improve their brand reputation.

For some, such as the Barnes & Noble partnerships with local schools, the system is working. For others, there’s evidence it may be backfiring.

“Companies are trying to appeal to people’s need to be helpful and to belong,” he said. “However, catching people at the register is viewed by many as a disruption, much like a salesperson calling on the phone during dinner.”

Even worse is, intentionally or not, making people feel bad about declining the offer, he said.

“Generous people want to be recognized as such,” he said. They are uncomfortable saying no, especially when standing in a long line at a crowded store. It makes them feel bad, he said.

Bad enough to change their shopping habits, in some cases, he added.

The stores that seem to have the greatest success with cause marketing are those that draw consumers already inclined to support their charity, such as pet stores that ask for donations for local animal shelters.

For the most part, Ingwer said, it comes down to this: “People want to give on their own terms, on their own time.”

Both the Better Business Bureau and GuideStar.org, an organization that keeps tabs on nonprofits, have tips for shoppers.

Before you give a dime to anyone, do your research, both groups say.

“Do not be influenced by high-pressure or emotional appeals,” said Tom Joyce, vice president of marketing and communications for the Better Business Bureau. “Giving on the spot is normally not necessary. The charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow.”

Far better to say no, go home, check on the organization and think about whether or not a given cause is something that meets your values and preferences, said Lindsay Nichols, a spokesperson for GuideStar.

“There are so many nonprofits out there, make sure you’re giving your money, even if it is just a dollar, to the causes that mean the most to you,” Nichols said.

Of course, stores know that shoppers can be vulnerable. For one, they’re already in a spending mood. Secondly, they may be prone to feelings of guilt, especially if they’re spending on themselves.

“It’s well known that donors give with their hearts; it’s an emotional thing,” Nichols said.

But don’t let your sense of altruism lead you to give outside your comfort zone, she said.

“Our advice is to not give at the cash register unless you’ve done your research,” she said.

Part of that research should include making sure a nonprofit is legitimate. If you donate to a charity that does not meet IRS criteria for tax-exempt organizations and then attempt to write that donation off on your taxes, you could be fined, Nichols said.

Nonprofits are required by law to file with the IRS for three consecutive years or face having their license revoked, she said. Right now, there are 270,000 nonprofits on the revoked list.

“Few people know about this,” she said. “The store partnering with the charity may not even know about this.”

You can search for a nonprofit’s status at GuideStar.org.

Other ways to research an organization include checking out the group’s website. Nichols said, “It should make some sense. Does it look legitimate? What are the programs it sponsors? Where are they sending the money?”

Nichols said consumers can designate how their money is to be spent. If you’d like it to go toward a particular program within a nonprofit, say that, she said.

Some definite red flags include a cashier’s persistence and a company’s inability to produce its cause’s mission statement or annual report.

“If you say ‘no’ and a clerk keeps bugging you, don’t do it,” Nichols said. “Donors should be empowered to ask questions. And stores should have answers.”

If you do decide to give, Nichols advises you to keep all receipts, even those that show a donation of less than $1.

“It’s important to help the needy, but it’s also important to help yourself to tax advantages,” she said.

Whatever you decide, whether to donate when making a purchase or not, you should leave the store feeling confident you made the right decision — for you.



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