Salvation Army using cardboard bell-ringers to stoke donations

Sunday, December 5, 2004

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- There's a reason that smiling Salvation Army bell-ringer looks a little stiff this Christmas season, and it's not the cold weather.

Banned from Target stores and faced with a shortage of holiday volunteers, the Christian charity is using scores of animated, cardboard bell-ringers on a test basis to staff its familiar red donation kettles in stores across the South.

Equipped with motion sensors, each corrugated cutout has a battery-operated, motorized arm that waves a silent cardboard bell. Thanks to a computer chip and a tiny speaker, anyone who draws near hears a loud, jingling bell and a cheery "Merry Christmas, God bless you" as they pass -- and, hopefully, drop some change in the kettle.

The cutouts, which come in male and female versions bearing the image of a uniformed Salvation Army officer, are being used at 200 retail locations of Books-A-Million and Hibbett Sporting Goods, both based in Birmingham. Stores in 14 states from Texas to Virginia have the fake bell-ringers.

Salvation Army volunteers and staff will still visit the kettles, but only once every three days to collect donations. To ward off theft, all the kettles are inside stores, unlike traditional human bell-ringers who typically stand outside.

Mark Brown, the Salvation Army's Birmingham-area commander, said Friday the cutouts were the idea of Charles Anderson, a member of the charity's national advisory board and chairman of Anderson Media Co., the parent company of Books-A-Million, which paid for the cardboard bell-ringers.

"It's a fun approach," said Brown, who helped install nine cardboard bell-ringers Thursday. "Even as we were assembling them people were coming up and saying, 'Let me put some money in your kettle.' It was quite a nice experience."

Target earlier this year decided to ban Salvation Army bell ringers from its stores since other groups aren't allowed to solicit money from shoppers. The decision hurt because the chain was the Salvation Army's second-largest collection point last year, accounting for about $9 million of the almost $94 million bell ringers raised nationwide.

Aside from that problem, the charity also is having trouble getting people to volunteer to collect donations. Of 90 potential collection points in the Birmingham area, Brown said only 50 or so are staffed at any time because of the shortage.

Other areas are having the same problem, Brown said, and the fake bell-ringers will help fill some of that void.

"We're trying to maintain our visibility. We want to keep that opportunity for donors to see us and make a donation in a very traditional way," said Brown.

George Hood, a spokesman with the national Salvation Army office in Alexandria, Va., said Anderson already has discussed expanding the program nationally if it works in the South.

"If we determine at the end of the whole thing that it's a positive experience, he'd like to roll it out to other small retailers," said Hood.

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