For Retailers, Charity Begins at the Store

Barbara Thau|Special to

‘Tis the season for giving, and this year, retailers are ramping up charitable holiday promotions like never before.

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Although The Great Recession has been declared officially over, stores ranging from Macys to Williams-Sonoma and Sears are launching and expanding a range of cause-marketing initiatives, subscribing to the premise that socially-conscious shopping is in, while conspicuous consumption is so 2006.

Although cause-related holiday marketing is nothing new, the economic downturn has shined a harsh spotlight on the misfortune of others, heightening the outreach to those in need, sources said. As a result, more retailers are aligning their brands and marketing plans with resonant causes—from feeding the hungry to aid for military families.

“Retailers want to be relevant to what’s happening in our culture,” said Carol Cone, chairman and founder of brand building and cause-branding agency Cone.

To that end, merchants are accelerating programs that spark giving and forge an emotional bond with consumers with charity-driven special events, shopper donations at checkout, shopping incentives tied to worthy causes, and by getting the word out on social media sites.

Consumer Nation Holiday Central Edition

The uptick in retail cause-related promotions this holiday season “can be linked to a couple of things,” said David Hessekiel, founder and president of Cause Marketing Forum.

“On a macro level, this is a time in which more and more, companies are seeing that consumers are looking to buy from companies that they feel share their values, and in this economic downturn, the feeling that we all need to be supporting one another is even stronger—this is not lost on retailers.”

And in an age when retail-marketing budgets are being slashed, “cause-related promotions are more than holding their own,” Hessekiel said.

The strategy is not only socially valuable: It’s good business.

These promotions enhance a retailer’s brand image while driving traffic to the store, and in turn, fuel sales, Cone said.

St. Jude Children’s Hospital is known as one of the most aggressive and successful non-profits at developing retail tie-ins. (The hospital is a pediatric treatment center serving children with cancer and catastrophic diseases.)

This season, the hospital signed on new retail partners for its "Thanks and Giving" holiday program, which helps children in communities nationwide, said John Remington, senior vice president of Thanks and Giving.

And more retailers like Target have created special products for the program, while merchants such as Ann Taylor and Charlotte Russe are touting bounce-back coupons, which offer shoppers a discount on their next purchase when they make a Thanks and Giving donation.

Sears' "Heroes from Home" Charity web site

Some retailers simply expanded their existing partnerships with the hospital.

In addition to summoning customer donations at the cash register, Williams-Sonoma created products such as the Furlicious Heart Pillow marketed at its Pottery Barn Teens chain. Each time someone purchases the $29 heart-shaped pillow, the company donates $10 to St. Jude.

Also for the first time, Williams-Sonoma is pledging a $10 donation to St. Jude with the purchase of a $100 gift card. As of mid-December, the retailer raised $2 million with these efforts, surpassing 2008’s donations.

St. Jude’s retail partners Target, Kmart, GNC and HSN , are posting updates on the hospital's Thanks and Giving campaign on co-branded Facebook and Twitter pages.

That's only one example of how social media has emerged as a key driver of cause-related marketing this season.

“Our presence on social media has exponentially grown,” said Tony Aiello, vice president of public relations for Sears Holdings .

Sears is getting the message out on its new "Jobs for Vets" program, which provides job mentoring and placement to returning military veterans and their families, on targeted social media sites such as military blogs.

"Jobs for Vets" adds to Sears’ military-themed holiday programs. For the second year in a row, the company has its "Heroes at Home Wish Registry," which pools donations for military veterans.

The retailer is bringing these stories to life with links on Facebook that lead to testimonials from veterans on its "Heroes at Home" Web site.

Consumers not only want to know that the charity is legitimate, but once they do, “They are really motivated when the seen an individual’s story,” Aiello said.

Sears has already surpassed its fundraising goals from 2008 for Heroes at Home.

Retailers are also increasingly crafting promotions that are more carefully tailored to their brand essence, as they don’t want to seem “insincere,” Cone said.

That’s why Wal-Mart is fighting hunger and giving to military families, and why Best Buy launched @15 Gifts, which is designed to raise $1 million for programs that empower teens—while donating some of the hottest gadgets—because, “Who is the big buyer at Best Buy? Teens,” Cone said.

What’s more, interactive, charitable programs that engage the consumer are gaining importance, she said, noting Macy’s expanded Believe campaign.

Believe draws from the fabled 1897 editorial in the New York Sun, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," which answered a little girl's question on Santa’s existence with an emphasis on the importance of believing.

The program invites children to pen letters to Santa at writing desk stations in Macy’s stores. With each letter, Macy's will donate one dollar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

This year, the retailer stepped up the program with a number of new elements, such as National Believe Day.

On Dec. 11, “street teams” dressed as 19th century newsboys combed the streets for do-gooders—a person helping another with their shopping bags, an individual who planned on volunteering this holiday season—and rewarded them with a $25 Macy’s gift card, said Holly Thomas, vice president of media relations and cause marketing for Macy’s.

Macy’s is “confident” that it will outpace last year’s donations, and by press time, had received 973,000 letters for Santa, Thomas said.

A good chunk of them came from a single 9-year old girl.

Justice Sloan, who suffers from liver and lung disease, was granted a weeklong trip to Disney World by the Make-A-Wish Foundation when she was five years old. She wanted to give back to the organization and help other kids' wishes come true. Sloan set out to collect 1,000 letters. She ended up turning in 10,100.