Whenever I buy something for the house, the office or the car, whenever I
shop in a drug store, Canadian Tire or a fast-food franchise, the chances
are better than even that I'm participating in some sort of frequent-buyer
When I travel by plane, it's always free with Aeroplan or Air Miles rewards.
Every now and then, my purchase of a tool or gadget at Canadian Tire is free
using the company's cash bonus coupons. After 10 lunches at my favourite
Japanese fast-food kiosk or sandwich shop, the next one is free using a
All of my book purchases at Coles, Chapters and Indigo earn free rewards
using my iRewards loyalty card. Even some Century 21 realtors reward their
clients with Air Miles points.
Given the popularity of these loyalty programs in today's economy, I was
quite surprised last month to read an article in the scholarly Canadian Bar
Review which questions the legality of these programs and calls for the
repeal of two obsolete sections of the Criminal Code.
Professor Richard W. Bird teaches at the Faculty of Law at the University of
New Brunswick in Fredericton. In his bar journal article, The Legality of
Frequent Buyer Programs, Bird suggests that modern frequent-buyer programs
are reincarnations of trading stamp programs introduced a century ago. Some
of these programs were declared illegal by the 1905 Trading Stamp Act, which
is still part of our Criminal Code.
In the early 1900s, a promoter named J. E. Wilder set up a business to sell
trading stamps to merchants. The merchants would give the stamps to
customers according to the amount of money spent in each establishment. When
the customer had accumulated enough coupons, they could be redeemed for
merchandise at Wilder's stores in Quebec City and Montreal.
Under the heading Fraudulent Transactions Relating to Trade, Section 427 of
the Criminal Code makes it an offence for a merchant to give trading stamps
to a customer. Section 379 contains a complicated definition of trading
stamp, but boiled down to its basics, it says that a trading stamp includes
any form of "cash receipt ... coupon, premium ticket or other device" given
by a retailer to represent a discount on the price of the goods or a premium
to the purchaser. In this definition, the stamp is illegal if it may be
By the retailer or the manufacturer in cash or goods that are owned by
someone else, or
At a location other than where the goods are purchased, or
By a third party.
It's also illegal if the stamp does not show the place where it is delivered
and its "merchantable value," or if it may not be redeemed on demand at any
Many prosecutions were launched under this legislation over the years,
including a number against Loblaws in the 1960s over its Lucky Green Stamps.
Test cases made their way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the
legislation was ruled valid.
In his article, Bird suggests that modern frequent-buyer point schemes are a
reincarnation of the old trading stamps, and fall squarely within the
Criminal Code definition of trading stamps. He thinks that even electronic
points (like Aeroplan or Air Miles points) could be caught by the definition
of "a form of cash receipt" or "other device."
Bird says the objective and operation of the old trading stamp schemes are
practically identical to modern frequent-buyer programs. It's time, Bird
argues, to remove any doubt about their legality and repeal sections 379 and
427 of the Criminal Code.
Bob Aaron is a leading Toronto real
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