Bell ringers cope with corporate regulations, recessionWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Around Thanksgiving, they begin showing up outside stores with a red kettle, a jingling bell and a smile. In many people’s eyes, Salvation Army bell ringers are as integral to the holiday season as Christmas trees, carols and Santa Claus.
So when Ingles dared to ban the bell ringers last month, the Western North Carolina-based grocery chain faced a powerful backlash from many of its customers.
Pulling the plug on what has become a kind of Christmas tradition did not pan out for Ingles, which decided last week to allow the bell ringers once more in some stores in Western North Carolina.
While the Salvation Army struggles to recoup lost time and meet its fundraising goals this year, it is also experimenting with new techniques, like debit card machines and online kettles.
It remains to be seen if the organization can successfully raise funds to meet a demand that has skyrocketed amidst a recession.
But for the rest of this holiday season, consumers can expect bell ringers to continue their tradition of braving the cold to benefit those in need.
To have or have not
In a move designed to ease solicitation of its customers during the holiday season, Ingles decided last month to prohibit the Salvation Army from stationing its bell ringers outside grocery stores.
The grocery chain also hoped to form a more consistent policy. Since the recession hit, an increasing number of organizations have asked that they, too, be allowed to solicit outside Ingles stores.
What appeared to be a simple business decision to help customers quickly fueled public outrage.
Far from being grateful about the measure, customers e-mailed and called the company, and wrote to their local newspapers, demanding that Ingles permit bell ringers to front its stores.
Meanwhile, the Salvation Army publicly maintained its cool.
“We understand that it was a business decision that needed to be made by Ingles,” said Capt. Craig Gontner, area coordinator for the Western North Carolina branch of the Salvation Army. “For us, it was unfortunate, but it was understandable.”
Luckily for the Salvation Army, Ingles was soon swayed by public opinion. It decided to allow bell ringers to chime during the week of Christmas.
That compromise, however, was still unacceptable to many customers.
Lynda Pierce, an Ingles customer in Waynesville, said she just doesn’t understand why Ingles would want to ban bell ringers.
“It’s not hurting them,” said Pierce.
Ingles’ decision was widely unpopular, partly because bell ringing has become synonymous with the holidays for Pierce and many others across the country.
“The kettles have established themselves as a Christmas tradition, especially in small towns like ours,” said Gontner.
Last week, Gontner received word that Ingles had a change of heart and decided to allow bell ringers at a few stores after all.
“There are additional stores in our service area, but the exception was granted for Waynesville and Canton only,” said Gontner.
Ron Freeman, Chief Financial Officer for Ingles, said his company fully supports the Salvation Army’s mission and hopes the organization reaches its fundraising goal this holiday season.
“We’ve spoken with Salvation Army representatives in a number of our market areas and have come up with solutions that everyone can work with,” Freeman said, adding that each year Ingles donates cash and food worth millions of dollars.
Fred Galloway, a Waynesville resident who has been a bell ringer for 11 years, said he was “very worried” about Ingles’ initial decision, but is grateful the company had a change of heart.
“It’s a prime spot,” said Galloway.
Wal-Mart, another prime spot for Salvation Army, also altered its policy on bell ringers this year, allowing bell ringers at its storefronts only until Dec. 24, instead of the usual Dec. 31.
Though Wal-Mart’s decision will undoubtedly hurt the Salvation Army’s fundraising goal, there has been little outcry over that policy change. Meanwhile, Bi-Lo only allows bell ringers on Fridays and Saturdays, and Food Lion allows all charitable organizations to solicit its customers for two Saturdays each year. Belk is one of the few companies that don’t have any such restrictions in place for bell ringers.
While the Salvation Army is relieved that it has won back a place in front of Ingles stores, the organization has not escaped this holiday season unscathed.
“We’re halfway through the season,” said Tim Pullin, a Waynesville resident who was frustrated by Ingles’ initial ban. “It’s impossible, making up all that lost ground and time.”
The WNC branch of the Salvation Army is, indeed, behind on its fundraising goal. It has managed to raise $18,600 this year, down by $22,000 from the same period last year.
In 2008, the branch raised a total of $116,000 from its 11 kettle sites and 40 counter kettles in seven western counties.
A number of factors could be blamed for the major dip in donations.
The Salvation Army started fundraising a week later than usual. The poor economy is another potential culprit.
But donations have been on the rise the last six years, and the WNC branch raised a record amount of money in 2008, when the country was still bogged down by the recession.
The weak economy has meant, inevitably, a greater need for charitable services.
According to Gontner, demand for the Salvation Army’s services has skyrocketed by 40 percent.
“This was not the year for us to see a decline,” said Gontner.
“Because they’re struggling, a lot of other people are going to be a struggling, too,” said Pullin. “It’s going to be a long, cold winter, and a lot of people are going to be hurting.”
It’s difficult to discount the Ingles factor in the Salvation Army’s fundraising troubles this year. After Wal-Mart, the Ingles stores in Canton and Waynesville rake in the most money for the WNC Salvation Army.
While customers flooded Ingles stores to buy turkeys the day before Thanksgiving, no bell ringers were around for one of the biggest fundraising days of the year.
They will be back at Ingles in time for another pivotal fundraising period, the week before Christmas.
“It is going to allow for us to hopefully come close to what we did last year,” said Gontner. “With us being behind by $22,000 this early in the game, it was very difficult for us to even be optimistic.”
The age of plastic
On a sunny winter day, bell ringers Linda Arnold and Lynda Self are standing outside the Belk in Waynesville next to a sign that signals a new day in bell ringing — debit card “kettles.”
This is the first year bell ringers in Western North Carolina are accepting plastic. Since fewer customers are carrying cold hard cash, the organization has decided to adapt to the card-carrying culture.
But so far, it’s the customers who are having trouble adapting.
The three card machines, which are available at high-traffic Wal-Mart and Belk sites, receive only a few swipes a day.
“It doesn’t appear the public at large has adapted to a debit card kettle,” said Gontner.
According to Sammy Fowler, kettle coordinator for WNC’s Salvation Army, 99 percent of donations are still cash.
There is hope, since the machines have been well received in other parts of the country, Gontner said.
“Here, we haven’t accepted it just quite as readily,” said Gontner, who predicts that more people will be more comfortable with using the machines next year.
Multiple theories exist for why customers in WNC are breezing past the debit card kettles.
Self, who was ringing outside of Belk in Waynesville last week, said most people drop spare change into the red kettles. Self postulates that that’s not enough money to warrant pulling out a VISA card.
Arnold added that most people are in a hurry and uneager to linger outside in the cold to punch numbers on a credit card machine.
But that doesn’t mean the machines aren’t handy.
“It’s a good option to have,” said Arnold.
Added security is another benefit of the machines. While stealing traditional kettles that carry large chunks of change could be relatively easy, a thief could be clueless about what to do with a stolen credit card machine.
Other than the debit card kettles, the Salvation Army has added two new ways of donating in recent years.
Consumers can donate gift cards with leftover balances, or to an online red kettle.