Sales Dressed as Charity and Service

November 11th, 2008

Categories: Customer Service

I bought a book at a national bookseller last weekend. The cashier asked me if I also wanted to “buy a book for a needy child,” and she pointed to a selection on a bookshelf behind her.

Was I supposed to be grateful for a service that makes it easier for me to contribute to charity? Instead, I saw it as a way for the store to increase sales.

I also felt uncomfortable, not wanting to appear stingy or to deprive a child of a book. I asked if I would be paying full price plus tax. Answer: “Yes.” [I’d seen the book she held in her hand last year at T J Maxx for less than half the price. This did not increase my desire to contribute and pay in full for a book that should have come deeply discounted from a remainder table.]

The practice is nothing new. Grocery stores collect canned and packaged goods for families in need, especially before major holidays. What does the grocery store contribute to this effort, other than an empty cardboard box to hold the mincemeat, canned pumpkin and brown sugar? Don’t soup kitchens and other charities pick up the boxes? The store probably doesn’t incur a shipping cost–it just profits from the sale of additional food.

However, I like the anonymity of fulfilling someone’s dream. At this time of year, I prefer to pick up letters to Santa available from the U.S. Postal Service.

It can be very sad to read letters from children whom Santa forgot last year and who ask only for things for siblings and parents, though many of the letters will charm you and make you laugh. The best part is imagining the family’s reaction when a wrapped box arrives with just the wished-for skates or sweater inside. The USPS web site,, suggests, “Contact your local postmaster to find out how and where you can participate.”

 I also like the Angel Tree concept. The tree is decorated with paper ornaments, each noting the name of either an adult, often in a nursing facility, or a child, along with a hoped-for gift.

 This year Santa’s North Pole mailbox and the Angel Trees at clubs, associations and in places of worship will be fuller than last. Should you want to gift food, there are food pantries all over the U.S. that would happily accept donations. Participate in some surprise gift giving at any time, if you can, and you’ll fill your heart with joy.

15 Responses to “Sales Dressed as Charity and Service”

  1. Marita Said:

    Congratulations, Jeannie. I always say No to these in-store requests to give. Yet, I always feel like a selfish person when I do. I don’t think people should be trapped with this request when they go shopping. I always tell them I contribute in other ways, and I’m sure they roll their eyes and think, “Oh sure.” I also always feel a little greedy when all these unsolicited mailings come in asking for a contribution. I like to think I have my own list of things to give to. But, yes, there’s always room for expansion, or shifts, so what I liked best about this blog is the suggestions you gave for different ways of giving. They’re great ideas, and I’ll bet your readers will respond. I know I will. Thanks –Marita

  2. Thomas Yip Said:

    Hello Ms. Byington:

    I also feel that we tend to become overwhelmed with various sales and marketing plots disguised as charities. I feel that people’s willingness to donate actually decreases as a result of the said marketing schemes.


  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Thanks for your comments, Marita and Thomas,

    I was hoping that someone might tell me that I misunderstood and that these were legitimate ways to help others and that I was missing the point–but I guess not.

    This year I note a huge decrease in requests for charity that come in the mail and include self-stick return address labels, no doubt because they are expensive and people no longer send money out of guilt in response to unsolicited gifts as they may once have. Jeanne

  4. Cathy Said:

    Whole Foods is another case in point.

    My husband and I give generously every year, but we prefer to select our own charities and nonprofits and give in a way that can make a real impact — whether it’s by donating our time, expertise, money, or a combination thereof. There are so many good causes out there, we don’t need merchants to select them for us!

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thanks for commenting. I agree–there are so many ways to help others as well as to support essential environmental causes–without having to leave your desk or armchair. I forgot to mention The New York Times Neediest Cases which have recently begun to run and if anyone wants to give a donation to a friend’s favorite charity instead of a holiday gift, that might be a great idea this year especially. Jeanne

  6. Seneca Said:

    You touched a sore spot. Check out “touches” are like beggars. You feel awful if you don’t give, but you know that if you do, you will encourage more of them. I give plentifully, but I like to chose the charities I give to. Therefore, I don’t give to this kind of solicitation. These merchants are little better than prostitutes.

    My answer to the problem is to avoid merchants that condone the practice, but then what do you do about “fatso” mega-book chain which charges 30% less than what your charming, friendly corner book store charges? You are trapped.


  7. Matt Mecs Said:

    This might embarrass Jeanne, but I have never met anyone so free with her time and advice. She volunteers with numerous college students on career guidance, and we have an on-going argument where she views it as her “job”, where I vainly try to convince her that it is actually not her job at all, but her kindness that drives her.

    Obviously, giving to charity is a good thing, but nothing replaces the inspiration and benefits you get from donating your time and working with people in person.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Seneca: And when your friendly grocery store puts out those boxes? You’ve got to buy your food somewhere. Not participating is the best way to discourage these “opportunities” and realizing that being strong without giving in is a good thing: You’re helping others from being taken advantage of. If the establishments gather only a small amount of stuff, they may stop this practice.

    Matt: Thanks. Time is one’s most precious commodity but some people don’t have five free minutes to rub together and they shouldn’t be faulted. I’ve been in that situation.

    For those with some time, who’ve never tried, there are countless opportunities. Friends and family have volunteered in hospitals, hospice and rehabilitation centers, knocked on doors and made calls for candidates, coached children’s sports, driven injured veterans to baseball games, picked up organs at the airport to drive them to a hospital, spent a night every week in a homeless shelter to name just a few.

    Time spent needn’t be face to face to be valuable. A great aunt typed countless books in brail for years. Books on tape weren’t available then so when she was no longer able to do this, she recorded the books.

    Rarely have I heard complaints from volunteers. If something’s not “you,” quit and do something you’d prefer! It’s great–there’s bound to be a perfect match.

  9. Carol Said:

    Thanks, Jeannie, for reminding me that it’s time to call my postmaster and ask about fulfilling wishes expressed in letters to Santa. I look forward to sending wished-for gifts to less-fortunate kids. We have so much, while there are so many people involved in herculean struggles to survive. They’ll never know it, but those kids I never meet will make my holiday brighter. Keep up the good work on the blog. Super idea!

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Carol, thanks for your comment.

    You make millions of kids lives happier every year by helping their parents plan the best vacations at your award-winning site, The concept is a little bit like being a surprise Santa–the children will never know why their vacations are suddenly so much fun–but you’ll know why!

  11. Elizabeth R. Baecher Said:

    I will not be bullied into being charitable, and resent attempts to make me feel guilty and/or stingy upon refusal to spend money when it is not my intent to do so. Was there any way to tell whether the proceeds were being directed towards needy children and not poured into the stores till?

    Conversely, it is a pleasure to donate a couple of $$ from time to time to the grocery store, since there is no pressure, and the money is spent feeding the hungry of all ages, and not just those of one specific age group.

  12. Elizabeth R. Baecher Said:

    PS – Forgot to mention The Southwest Indian Foundation, which among other things has been helping needy Navahos in a number of ways, ranging from education to sheltering victims of family abuse. During this holiday season, they are looking for Christmas food baskets and combination stoves (Southwest or not it gets very cold). A basket to feed a family (and then some) goes for $58.60 (half basket, $29.30) and the stove, $539. This organization also attempts to raise funds by virtue of the sale of a number of high quality items (I have been buying from them for over 10 years). They can be reached by calling 1-800-504-2723 or through their site at If ordering and/or donating, just remember to request your name not be published, unless you want to hear from every tribe under the sun.

    This is just an idea. I have no personal agenda other than the feeling not too much attention is being paid to Indian tribes in trouble. Not all of them run casinos.

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You make a point I didn’t think of though I doubt that a store as big as the one I was in would take money for books and not give them to needy kids.

    Thank you for pointing out The Southwst Indian Foundation. I bet it is not in people’s thoughts during the holidays [or at other times] and for sharing the tip to ask not to have your name published. I become disheartened when I get armloads of solicitations from a charity to which I’ve sent a modest sum as it seems to amount to more than my original donation in paper and postage.

  14. Lucille Said:

    No sooner did I read your blog that I ran to a national bookseller’s to buy a 2009 planner. Was confronted with the same ” do you want to buy a book for a needy child?” Sales disguised as charity was front of mind but with a line out the door I hesitated to say no for fear of looking cheap and uncharitable. I chalked up the $3.99 and decided I would do online shopping for the next few months to avoid this.

    The same said day I was in the supermarket and was asked to donate canned goods for their Thanksgiving drive.

    On a positive note, my daughter Mia’s preschool decided that in lieu of holiday parties this year each class would “adopt” a family from the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry and donate food for a holiday meal. Now that is something I was happy to contribute to.

  15. Linda Said:

    Your blog about the charities is great and I am going to take your advice and go to the PO to get a Santa Letter. I hate when my grocery store wants me to buy some canned goods.

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