Friday, June 08, 2012

“Loyalty Card Lament”

c. 2012 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

A recent shopping trip for edible bargains concluded with a moment of silent reflection.

My cart was full with out-of-market items like Juanita’s Chicken soups, one with Chipotle and the other with Jalapeno. And bags of Herr’s potato chips, in Sweet Onion, Creamy Dill, and Horseradish & Cheddar varieties.

At my previous stop, I had already purchased Charro Bean Casserole, Larry the Cable Guy’s Hamburger Dinner, and PASCO Curry Express sauces. So I reckoned my family would be happy with such tasty food alternatives in the cupboard.

Yet as my purchase was being rung out, the cashier dutifully asked if I had one of her store’s loyalty cards.

I sighed loudly, pondering the stack of printed plastic already in our household collection.

“No,” I confessed, being totally honest. “But we have so many of them already…”

She laughed at my comment. “Yes, everyone says that. Would you like to sign up?”

Briefly I pondered asking, if such a complaint was common, why the store didn’t abandon their gimmick in the name of good customer service. But taking that line of conversation seemed ill advised. Especially because the reason was already obvious – an ability to gather real-time data about customer habits through such programs.

Instead of arguing, I simply filled out her application. Minutes later, I left the discount emporium with a large sack of goodies, and another card.

While driving home, I tried to remember the first loyalty wafer in my wallet. It seemed likely that, in local terms, Rini-Rego Stop-N-Shop began the trend.

The company was based in Cleveland, and had Geauga County locations in Chardon and Bainbridge.

A bit of research uncovered information on that bygone card’s debut:

“Late in the first quarter of 1995, Stop-N-Shop Supermarkets, which
include the Company's Rini-Rego and Marketplace stores, launched a new target
marketing campaign: Preferred Shoppers Club. Area shoppers receive a
Preferred Shoppers Club card which entitles them to extra markdowns below
weekly sales prices. This program is the first of its kind in northeast Ohio
and allows the Company to offer its customers greater value and will
ultimately enhance its ability to track and understand the buying habits and
purchasing preferences of our customers.” –

As a once-upon-a-time resident of New York State, I remembered that food retailer Wegmans had such a reward program in place several years before the idea reached Cleveland. I had signed up to receive discounts when re-visiting the area, or when stopping at their Erie, Pennsylvania location.

A visit to the company website confirmed that their Shopper’s Card had indeed been rolled out at the Corning, NY store, in 1990.

Further investigation revealed that the practice of issuing such cards actually began in the United Kingdom during the early 1980’s. The idea spread globally, until even nations like India, Malaysia, and Iran were seduced by the habit.

As this trend expanded, mobile phone apps like Key Ring made keeping track of loyalty cards less difficult. They let consumers scan and store these cards for easy use, when needed.

Loyalty programs seem to have become an accepted part of life for shoppers everywhere. But America’s dominant food retailer has avoided the practice, completely:

“Many people know that Walmart is the largest retailer in the world. But less of us know that Walmart has also been the largest grocer since 2002, when it sold $53 billion in grocery. As a matter of fact, it is grocery that propelled Walmart into being the world’s largest retailer… But Walmart is not your typical grocer. One of the many things that Walmart does differently is not running any loyalty card programs of the kind popularly practiced by more than half of supermarket chains, including top names like Kroger’s Club Plus, Safeway’s Club Card, SuperVal (Shaw’s) Rewards Card, Ahold USA’s My Stop & Shop Card, and Giant Eagle’s Advantage Card, and more.” -

While the lure of loyalty cards remains strong, consumers appear to be voting against their use by visiting Walmart. Still, the market remains committed to this device. Shoppers accept them at many popular stores in return for savings and convenience. So the message for retailers is mixed.

As the day ended, I counted the cards in my own wallet. There were twelve in all, not including those used so rarely that they had been tossed into a desk drawer. Each one represented a link to my personal shopping history. And, to bargain hunting in the 21st Century.

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