Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Retail

Why we love and hate Canadian Tire money Add to ...

No one expected Sandy McTire to live to 50. Since the jovial Scottish gent was introduced on the face of Canadian Tire money in 1961, rumours have persisted that his days were numbered.

Such talk resurfaced this month when Canadian Tire released its latest quarterly report. After the retailer announced it would be piloting a new loyalty program this year, some reporters hastily concluded that the retail giant's funny money was on its way out - triggering reactions of alarm from some and relief from others.

The company will indeed be test-driving an electronic points card, but spokeswoman Amy Cole confirms in an e-mail the bills are here to stay "for the foreseeable future."

What is it about Canadian Tire's iconic bills that gets so many people so worked up?

Alan Middleton, an assistant marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business and co-author of Ikonica: A Field Guide to Canada's Brandscape, says Canadian Tire money has survived so much longer than competitors' versions of branded coupons and stamps because of its "like-cash" design. "There was something very attractive about a funny little piece of paper that had five Canadian cents on it."

While the company says otherwise, Dr. Middleton guesses the introduction of an electronic card is a signal Canadian Tire is trying to wean customers off the bills.

The five-cent, 10-cent, 25-cent, 50-cent, $1 and $2 bills - introduced at gas bars in 1958 and then distributed at retail stores in 1961 - may make Canadian Tire distinctive, he says, but "you don't want to be distinctive because you're out of date."

While electronic loyalty cards are, to most consumers, wallet clutter, Canadian Tire money has transcended its base purpose to become a national institution. It's traded, collected and donated.

Here are some of the ways:



The traveller

That clever globetrotting Canadians have passed off the bills as legal Canadian tender has always been part of company lore - truth or marketing myth?

Kelly Pender, 53, still feels a twinge of regret that he didn't pack any Canadian Tire money with him when he travelled from Belleville, Ont., to Italy with his Grade 12 class in 1975.

After the group wound its way through a market in Florence and boarded a bus to hit their next destination, Johnny, one of Mr. Pender's classmates, showed off a special purchase he'd made. He bragged he'd paid for a royal blue velour jacket with a thick wad of Sandy McTires.

The language gap between tourist and vendor meant Johnny was able to dupe the merchant - at least temporarily.

"As he's showing everyone on the bus his fine velour purchase, the vendor started chasing after the bus and banging on it as it drove away," Mr. Pender recalls with a laugh.

The collector

Thayer Buock spends more time in Canadian Tire stores each week than any other Canadian who isn't on the company's payroll, but he says he's never bought a single item with Canadian Tire money - "that would be sacrilege."

The 76-year-old makes weekly visits to three nearby locations, but he has no interest in the garden tools in Aisle 28 or the paint supplies in Aisle 17. When he shows up at his favourite store - a location in Welland, Ont. - he's ushered into a locked room where he sorts through piles of bills. It's the kind of treatment only offered to the president of the 500-member-strong Canadian Tire Coupon Collectors Club.

If he finds any unusual uncirculated bills with missing serial numbers or signatures of past company presidents who served short terms, he grabs them and replaces them with ones of equal face value from his collection.

He has a room dedicated to his collection at home in Fonthill, Ont.: 16 binders of organized bills and several boxes full of Sandy McTires to be sorted.

Each year, he travels to trade shows and auctions to check out others' collections - some include rare bills from the original series valued at $2,000 - but has never bought one for more than face value. Unlike stamp- or coin-trading circles, the Sandy McTire trading circuit is laidback, he says.

Once, in jest, he told one of his daughters he was going to bequeath her his coin collection and his other daughter his Canadian Tire money collection.

His other daughter called him a few minutes later. "She said, 'Dad! What are you talking about? I don't want your Canadian Tire money!' "

The fundraiser

The standard donations at Moncton's West End Food Bank are what you'd expect: cans of soup, boxes of macaroni and cheese. But last year, looking to cover incident costs of running the food bank, staff added another item to its "most wanted" list: Canadian Tire bills.

In the past four months, people have unloaded roughly $400 worth of Sandy McTires on them.

Manager Ben MacMichael says the food bank has used the bills to purchase cleaning products and bags to repackage donated food.

The Victoria Pet Adoption Society in Victoria also asks its supporters for the bills that can then be used to purchase supplies, such as plastic containers that can be converted into shelters for feral cats.

A group at Vancouver Island University started a Canadian Tire money drive in 2007 to buy thousands of dollars worth of sleeping bags, blankets and socks for Vancouver's homeless population.

Mr. MacMichael theorizes people are more willing to part with Canadian Tire money rather than legal Canadian tender because it's seen as "bonus cash. …

"When times are tight … this is something extra they can hand on to someone like us," he says.

The grey marketeers

The yarns Cheri Borden sells at her shop, ACME Fibres, come from Canadian mills, and the fibres and spinning wheels are also made domestically. When Ms. Borden opened the online store two years ago, it seemed obvious that she should accept Canadian Tire money.

"When you're focused so much on Canadian products, how can you not take Canadian Tire money too? That would be, well, un-Canadian, wouldn't it?" she says in an e-mail.

Video Difference, a Halifax video store, will also allow you to pay for your two-week rental of Uncle Buck with a wad of Sandy McTires. Ditto for Tuesday concession-stand purchases at Vernon Towne Cinema in Vernon, B.C., and fly-fishing lessons from Fly Fish 4 Trout in Campbellville, Ont.

While it cements the massive brand recognition of Canadian Tire money, the company isn't a fan of the practice.

In 2009, one newspaper reported Canadian Tire sent the owner of a Cochrane, Ont., auto parts shop a cease and desist order. He had a sign in his shop's window advertising that he accepted Canadian Tire money.

Ms. Cole, Canadian Tire's spokeswoman, would not comment on the case, but did say in an e-mail: "We take appropriate action to safeguard our trademarks in cases where we feel there are potential violations."

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories