The long history of the Argos catalogue

The Argos catalogue has long been regarded as an iconic aspect of home shopping, but its roots lie with the more modest leaflet of the 1960s which illustrated the rewards for shoppers who collected Green Shield stamps.

The first major shopping incentive scheme was launched in 1896 in the USA by Thomas Sperry and Shelley Hutchinson who created the famous S&H stamps.   Stores and gas stations would purchase stamps from the company to give to customers who collected them in books. These were then redeemed for household goods.  The scheme became so popular that at one time, the company claimed their gift catalogue was the largest printed publication in the United States, and the company claimed they issued three times as many stamps as the US Postal Service.

The concept was introduced to Britain by Granville Richard Tompkins in 1958.  Tompkins was born in Islington in north London in 1918.  He worked as an engineering draughtsman during the First World War and then became a printer, setting up his own business in 1945.  Whilst on holiday in Chicago in the 1950s, he witnessed the success of the American S&H scheme, and consequently created his own Green Shield Stamp Trading Company in England.  Tompkins was able to register the 'green shield' as a UK trademark which meant that when S&H introduced their own scheme to Britain in the early 1960s, it was branded as S&H Pink Stamps.

Customers who shopped in affiliated stores were rewarded for shopping with stamps which, when saved in books, could be exchanged for gifts at special shops. Originally, shop assistants had to issue the stamps manually, but when Green Shield was adopted by the large retailers including Tesco, machines linked to the checkout tills would dispense the required number.

The competition between Tompkins Green Shield stamps and the S&H Pink Stamps became fierce, and inevitably led to a form of inflation, offering customers double and then quadruple numbers of stamps on special promotions. 

 By the early 1970s, when inflation began to take off in the real world of the economy, shoppers were bringing home many hundreds of stamps each week, and were faced with the somewhat tedious duty of sticking them into the books. The two companies addressed this issue by introducing higher 'value' stamps worth ten or forty single stamps. It was inflation which led to the demise of the schemes, as the value of the rewards steadily diminished, and customers began to find the process tedious and time-consuming.

S&H survived in the USA, but with very few retail outlets using their stamps. With the rise of internet shopping, they switched from paper-based incentives to a 'Greenpoints' online system. This was later sold on to a company pioneering electronic touch-to-pay technology which closed suddenly, some years later.

Tompkins' Green Shield business took a different turn by changing its identity. The entrepreneur had introduced an arrangement by which customers could redeem their stamps for more valuable rewards by paying the balance in cash. He realised that he could phase out the stamp element completely if his reward shops sold the sort of goods that customers wanted to buy. This development of the original concept came to him while Tompkins was holidaying in the Greek city of Argos in 1973, and it was this name that he chose for his new enterprise.

However, although Tompkins began opening his new Argos stores, Tesco was still using his Green Shield stamps. It was not until 1977 that Tesco, facing growing competition from other retailers offering grocery items at discounted prices, made the decision to abandon the stamps, using the savings, more than £20 million, to cut the price on a wide range of products. The chain stayed closed for an additional day following the Queen's Silver Jubilee weekend so that their prices in stores could be changed.

The Tesco decision was the trigger for Tompkins to transfer his energies to the Argos brand. Although the two companies were separate, Green Shield's transport fleet, redemption shops and administrative buildings were gradually rebranded as Argos. The original glossy gift catalogue remained the basis of the Argos business, with only a small selection of goods being on display at Argos stores. 

Tompkins sold Argos to BAT Industries in 1979 for £30 million. In 1983, the stamps were withdrawn entirely, although an attempt to revive them in a small number of retail outlets was made in 1987.  

Tompkins was awarded the CBE in 1992. He died the same year. Ironically, the Argos association with the supermarket giants continued.  Faced with growing competition from online retailers such as Amazon, the business was sold, and was eventually acquired, with its 739 stores, by Sainsbury's in 2016 for £1.4 billion. Sainsbury's then commenced the roll-out of Argos shops within their supermarkets in locations where this no nearby Argos outlet.

In 2011, the company printed more than twenty million catalogues, but more recently, the emphasis switched to online and electronic browsing.  In July 2020, Argos announced it would cease the publication of its iconic catalogue.