How do kettles fare as Christmas shopping trends toward online buys?

Lauren FitzPatrick

The bells outside the red kettles might be the only things jingling anymore.

As more Americans shop for Christmas online, less cash is changing hands and landing – in some cities and towns – in donation coffers such as Salvation Army kettles.

“It’s pretty grim,” said Alice Hohl, a spokeswoman for the Columbus, Ohio, Salvation Army, saying that her area has taken a hit. “The worst part is that more people are needing our help.”

Some 7,200 families in the Columbus area needed Christmas donations of food and toys, up from 6,000 families last year, she said.

Year-round requests for food are increasing, too, she said.

In the week before Christmas, Massachusetts also is about 8 percent down from last year, according to the national office. New York is about 12 percent down from 2006.

“There has been some speculation about the impact of online shopping and people just not carrying cash anymore,” Hohl said. “We can't prove that is what's happening, but it seems to be ringing true.”

Online shopping jumped 19 percent this year from last during the early shopping season, Nov. 1 through Dec. 18., according to comScore, a Virginia-based company that tracks e-commerce. The $25 billion spent during that time has surpassed spending for the whole 2006 shopping season, comScore reported.

And payment with plastic, whether credit or debit cards, account for about 50 percent of spending by 18- to 24-year-olds. Cash and checks account for just 41.1 percent of their spending, according to Visa. The National Retail Federation reported that about 40 percent of holiday spending was paid by debit or check card, 30 percent on credit cards, 24 percent with cash and the rest with paper checks.

Still, the kettles have been successful overall in the last few years. National donations have climbed steadily year by year. Generosity in the wake of Hurricana Katrina accounts for a 2005 jump to $112 million from $102 million the year before, said Melissa Temme, a national spokeswoman.

Last year’s collection totaled $117 million – but $1 million came a single check written by Walmart, and another $50,000 from a Texas business owner.

And should cash ever disappear, stores close and all of us live in virtual reality, online red kettles will still collect on behalf of the charity.

“People's generosity,” Temme said, “even though we see it year after year after year, somehow the American public seems to surprise us.”

Want to help?

Tired of scrounging for change when you pass the Salvation Army bell ringers? You can donate online at www.onlineredkettle.org.