Canadian Tire money - love it, hate it, can't bear to throw it out: Don Pittis

On a day when Canadian Tire announced that it was keeping its famous currency but adding a digital rewards program, Don Pittis reflects on our sentimental connection to those multi-coloured bills.

Company keeping paper currency, adding digital rewards program

Canadian Tire has announced that it will not, in fact, phase out its famous currency. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

When we at the CBC heard Canadian Tire was planning an announcement about its "money," we braced ourselves. We knew Canadians would be worried. I mean, this could be the end of the multi-coloured paper notes that so many of us have known — and, strangely, craved – since we were children.

If so, could it be the biggest Canadian business story since the loss of the penny? The biggest since Tim Hortons was sold – for the second time – to an American fast-food chain? The biggest since Canadian Tire itself was denied the right to control the phrase "Crappy Tire," declaring the insult was part of its brand?

(The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization said, Sorry, no.)

Standing on guard for thee, emails flew between CBC assignment editors and Canadian Tire PR. "Is this the end of physical Canadian Tire money?" we asked, trying to remain calm.

No, we were reassured, that moment had not yet come. (Audible gasp of relief at the CBC news desk.)

The news, as it turned out, was that Canadian Tire was not phasing out the paper currency, but was simply adding a digital loyalty system.

Not everyone loves Canadian Tire money, mind you. In fact, a quick, anonymous poll of Canadians (and one American) – using the scientific method of wandering around the newsroom – demonstrated a strange and almost twisted relationship with the "money."

The one American (a dual citizen who grew up in Boston) – whom I will call Sol – reported that when he moved north for university, one of the remarkable things he discovered about Canada was Canadian Tire, a store that sold auto parts, skates, plants and canoes.

"I can't think of an American equivalent," said Sol.

But he didn't have the same love for the money, thereby demonstrating one of those few differences between Canadians and Americans.

"I throw it out," Sol said.

Of those people who grew up in Canada, however, not one person I spoke to in my informal poll said the same thing. Love it or hate it, Canadians, it seems, do not throw Canadian Tire money away.

Stockpiling bills

Which is, of course, part of the problem. Canadian Tire money doesn't have much value, but it's hard to get rid of it. Several of my interviewees actually produced a loose bill, bearing the visage of Sandy McTire, from their purse or wallet.

Almost everyone had a story. From a mother who kept the bills in the back of a drawer – never spending them, "in case something happened" – to the father-in-law who proudly saved a "massive stack" carefully sorted by denomination on his work bench and used it to buy an entire snowblower.

My friend whose mother stockpiled the bills said he never really understood what kind of nightmare "something" (Nuclear war? A global currency collapse?) would make Canadian Tire money the family nest egg. But as a child, he had no doubt the bills were valuable.
Canadians have strong feelings about Canadian Tire and its multi-coloured money, writes Don Pittis. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Many people talked of a childhood fascination with the bills. Several said the feeling is perpetuated by their children today. Perhaps that is responsible for the penny-pinching reputation of Canadians, even though we no longer have pennies to pinch. As children, we developed a respect for folding green (and blue and red), even though it was only worth a few cents.

Of course, Canadian Tire money really isn't money at all. At the bottom of each bill, it says it is a "cash bonus coupon." That hasn't stopped various pubs and shops from accepting the bills on occasion, partly as a promotion and partly to buy things they need.

My desk neighbour reported on a Toronto-area bar that has an annual Canadian Tire Money night to pay for the next year's outdoor tables and chairs. Another reminded me of the musician who used Canadian Tire money to finance an album.

Everyone had stories about school or community collections of Canadian Tire money, often to buy a prize for a raffle.

No longer worth as much

In the 1950s, when it was first introduced as a unique and early equivalent of the modern loyalty program, Canadian Tire money really was worth something. Yessir, when five bucks would buy a couple of two-fours, a five-cent bill that had an ineffable physical similarity to its five-dollar equivalent was not to be tossed in the garbage.

At one time, you earned five cents for every dollar you spent. Now, it's only half a cent per dollar. And those big plastic donation bins at Canadian Tire exits mean that you no longer really have to take the "money" home and collect it. You can feel like a big spender and give those valuable bills to charity.

But as a loyalty program, they have struck a deep chord with Canadians that points cards can't match. According to colleague Aaron Saltzman (who says he usually donates them in the plastic bin), they are unique among loyalty programs because "you don't have to sign up." He avoids other loyalty programs because he doesn't like companies collecting his personal data.

Which may be one reason for today's announcement, which adds digital money without phasing out the bills. Information on your clients is a well-known retail goldmine.

CBC business host Jeannie Lee tells me she faces the same annoying problem suffered by almost every other Canadian who can't bear to toss the stuff away. She has a single Canadian Tire bill of a small denomination that she's been trying to get rid of for years.

"But every time I spend it, at the end of the transaction, they just give it back," she says. Somewhere, Sandy McTire is rubbing his hands and cackling.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.