Donating At The Checkout Counter, Where Does The Money Go?

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) –- It’s something that has happened to all of us shopping for groceries. Before you pay, you are asked to give, to one cause or another. So where is the money going, and how do people feel about it?

There’s actually a word for it: Embedded giving. It raises millions for charity. But is it something you want to be asked every time you shop? Shoppers we talked to had mixed opinions: “It doesn’t bother me because it’s for a good cause,” said Shelly Lewis. “Sometimes it puts me a little bit off, kind of feels like maybe I am not doing enough of my part,” said Bob Kunich.

“They feel sometimes badgered into giving, guilted into giving, manipulated into giving,” said Golden Gate University marketing professor Kit Yarrow. Part of her job involves keeping tabs on shoppers’ preferences. Yarrow said right now, “Consumers feel like they are just bombarded.”

She said embedded giving is a marketing ploy that may be getting over-used. “It’s backfiring. It doesn’t seem like it’s special or significant,” she said.

And despite reassurances from cashiers that 100 percent of the money goes to the cause, CBS 5 found many shoppers remain skeptical.

“I usually choose not to donate, because I have no idea where the money is going,” said Bob Smith. “I wonder the percentage that the store gets,” said Tammy Keller.

The California Attorney General’s Office told CBS 5 there Is very little regulation of embedded giving. Safeway wouldn’t talk to us on camera about it, saying “it’s a touchy subject.”

But the company did send CBS 5 financial statements that support its claim that all the money raised at the cash register does go to causes, such as UCSF’s breast cancer research program.

“I think Safeway is going to make an enormous impact on breast cancer,” said Dr. Laura Esserman, Director of the Breast Care Center at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center. “They have made a strategic decision to invest it in really high impact programs so that they can make a big difference, and that is what they are doing.”

Safeway is not the only one with such donation drives. Whole Foods Market and Petco are among the many companies that collect donations at the checkout counter. At Petco, donations all go through the Petco Foundation, which keeps less than 10 percent for administrative overhead. The rest helps thousands of local animal groups like Gimme Shelter, which rescues abandoned cats.

“We have great success with our customers. They are open hearted, they want to give, they want to help animals in the community,” said Lori Morton Feazell, Petco’s Director of Animal Care and Education.

But Yarrow said as more companies jump on the charity bandwagon, “it loses its impact. It becomes sort of meaningless.”

The bottom line for shoppers might be one cashier’s advice: “If you don’t feel comfortable don’t do it,” the cashier said.

Safeway released this statement to CBS 5 about their checkout donation program:

We hold four retail checkstand fundraisers a year. During April we raise funds for “people with disabilities” and distribute the funds to a range of organizations including Easter Seals and Special Olympics. In June and October we raise funds for prostate and breast cancer because these two cancers affect the broadest cross-section of our customer base. The funds are donated to cancer research projects at some of the top cancer centers in North America. In August, we raise funds to assist people with neuromuscular disease.

Last year Safeway raised $53 million for these four causes. All of the funds went directly to the designated charity. Regarding transparency, we make it clear to customers through a range of channels how the funds are distributed through press events and press releases as well as messaging to both customers and employees. The Safeway Foundation files an annual Federal Form 990 that provides detail and complete transparency on how the funds are allocated.

Regarding customer reaction, these campaigns are well-received by customers. We track customer comments and the percent of positive feedback dwarfs the negative. The fact that last year we raised $18 million for breast cancer during four weeks in October tells us the vast majority of our customers view the campaign positively. The feedback we get is that our customers appreciate the opportunity to make a small contribution to what they see as an important and worthwhile cause. In fact, the majority of donations are in one dollar denominations. In today’s difficult economic times, every dollar is needed to fund important services and research, which is why Safeway dedicates its time and efforts to help those in need.

(© CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • L. Dressler

    All I know is that when I go shopping at Safeway, I’m there to buy what the store sells – groceries, period. I don’t want to be asked for cash donations every single time I go up to the cash register. This article hit the nail on the head – I feel bombarded with charity requests, and frankly, I’m inclined to give less as I find it really annoying. My local store has even started to give donation updates over the PA system (“We just need x more dollars to hit our target, woo-hoo!!”) Enough!!

    • Bruce Owens

      Couldn’t agree with you more

  • Michael Nelson

    I get hit up by panhandlers every time I leave the house in SF. Now Safeway is panhandling me too, and I don’t like it.

  • Hate Safeway

    I have totally stopped donating after Safeway has become so aggressive. I used the self checkout and pushed the button for cash back for 300,00 as I was leaving town. A message came up asking if I want to donate the same amount to charity? I assumed that it was asking if the amount was okay and pressed yes, until I realized what it said. Thankfully I can only withdraw 300.00 a day and the transaction was denied, or else i would have been out 300.00. I spoke to the manager and he was amazed that the machine was set up that way. Now when asked, I reply that Obama is ttaking care of that !

  • Bruce Owens

    I agree with the others. If I want to donate, I will. I don’t appreciate a cashier trying to pressure me into it in front of other customers. That kind of hardsell is offputting. I let Safeway know how I feel about it. I have nothing against their charity, but I don’t need to be hit up for cash every time I shop there. Thankfully, a lot of the stores are getting self-checkout which allows you to avoid this kind of thing

  • Sandy F

    I will donate when I want to . A container left on the stand by register next to the ATM(usually where they are put) is ENOUGH. I do not want to be ASKED by the cashier(nor should management be PUTTING THEM UP TO ASKING BECAUSE YOU KNOW THEY ARE). I will donate if I choose to. It’s bad enough we have to be approached by the “Box” people outside the stores.

  • Lili

    Hateful people in a hateful world.

    Be grateful you have large grocery stores at which to shop.
    Be grateful there are large institutions that give you a one-stop opportunity to donate to charities you would otherwise ignore(until it affected you personally).

    Is it REALLY such a tragedy to be asked a question by a cashier or are people too self-involved to think a little about others?


    • tn

      Media shapes many of our understanding and beliefs. When 80% of daily news is about murder, white/blue collar crimes, war, depression, economic problems, divorces, the 49’ers problems, etc, and 20% to weather and the Giants, people become cynical. Sad. But thanks for your insight. We need more of this.

  • pitapocket

    Doesn’t bother me at all. I ask the checkers to round up to the nearest dollar so if my total is $24.85 my donation is .l5 cents and I can remember $25.00 easily.

  • Tony

    If I can afford to buy ice cream I think I can afford to donate a dollar to help someone who is dying or living with a disability. In fact if they were standing there I’d buy them ice cream too!

  • Dylan Kaine


    • tn

      @ Dylan- you’re right about tax deductions. One has to look at its books to know if what you claim is factual. It would be stupid of them not to “match” or put their money where their mouth is. Besides, they wouldn’t want the negative press (and customer loss) if they only donated what the patrons donated and only took that expense. Yes, they get the tax write-off as an expense, and so do we (at least on TurboTax). Complaining is something we all do as human beings. The leaders are the ones who take it one more step and try to solve problems. Take the high road.

  • tn

    I understand people are generally self-centered and don’t want to be “bothered’ with making another monetary decision at the check-out stand (or any other moment for that matter). Being a spouse of a breast cancer survivor and directly experiencing the UCSF medical staff who have not only cured my wife, but made an impact on me about what they do and how well they do it. I applaud Safeway for taking the extra step and partnering. Perhaps your local Safeway clerks seem overly-aggressive, however, Alameda’s is extremely courteous and professional. I realize people (workers) are generally resistant to “ask for the sale” and I applaud them for trying. I think this doesn’t hurt to ask patrons if they would like to donate. If you don’t want to, great. If you do, great. Free country. If it bothers you so much, you have the ability to make the conscience effort and shop elsewhere or stop and think about someone you care for or know who has been affected by cancer, and if you choose not to “go the extra mile,” at least be thankful for what you do have. Life’s too short to complain about a 5-second question by your local Safeway clerk, especially if it’s to not only for a good cause, but one that truly works! Enough said.

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