A Look At Life: What Price Loyalty

6th January 2012

Adding Up The Points… What Price Loyalty?

Heather Harris

I nearly have enough points for a stick of mascara, apparently – or so the assistant informed me as she swiped my Boots Advantage card on one of my last shopping trips before Christmas. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as my – and her – eyes fell on the bulging carriers containing everything from DIY waxing kits for the sister-in-law who has everything (including very hairy legs) to indigestion tablets to hot water bottle covers in assorted colours.

That’s the thing with all these loyalty points – no matter how much you spend the rewards seem miniscule. Fourteen times to the moon and back on the World’s Favourite Airline and you might just have enough Air Miles for a one way ticket to Bruges travelling off peak on a Wednesday in February. Fill up your car with petrol twice a day for a week and, hey presto, here’s a redemption letter suggesting you cash in your points for a ‘free’ heated windscreen cover.

Actually, I want to reply, it’s not ‘free’. It’s cost me a few hundred pounds in premium unleaded plus a massed band of cheap garage chocolate bars which I seem powerless to resist.

We are, despite my irritation with the concept, an incredibly loyal nation. According to recent statistics a typical adult has at least three loyalty cards and consumers have a total of £5.2 billion in unused points. That’s probably enough to buy a duvet and pillow case set, but you’ll have to collect a few more for the matching sheets.

I know that I am one of these point-hoarding consumers. While my friends manage to ‘club’ together and take car loads of children to Alton Towers on their Tesco Clubcard points, I’m the one holding up the entire checkout queue as I scrabble around for a dog-eared voucher, only to discover that it’s out of date or only applies to milk chocolate digestives, not to the dark ones in my trolley.

Last year, I gave up collecting the money off vouchers and started paying my pet insurance with my supermarket points – but the redemption process was so complicated (a lot of envelope sticking and endless calls to the Clubcard Helpline) that I decided I was barking up the wrong tree and the dog’s worming tablets would be simpler paid by direct debit.

Historically, we’re a nation of shopkeepers, so it should be no surprise that despite the drawbacks, the loyalty card market in the UK is the largest in the world. One of the first schemes backed by a major chain was the Sainsbury's Homebase Spend and Save Card in 1982, followed by Tescos in 1994 and Boots in 1997. Enticing us away from competitors by bribing us for our loyalty was one of the reasons, but as The Economist magazine helpfully pointed out, ‘The real benefit of loyalty cards to UK outlets is the massive database potential they offer’.

Fine with Homebase – frankly, the type of grouting I buy is knowledge I will happily share – but the thought that the Boots marketing department is tracking my weekly deodorant usage (and that of my fellow 16.4 million Advantage card holders) whiffs of Big Brother.

Even my drinking habits are now hot property with both Costa Coffee and Starbucks operating loyalty card schemes complete with magnetic strip and accompanying annoying emails reminding me how much caffeine I’ve poured down my throat that month.

Somehow it was fine in the low tech days when we all had a purse full of cardboard cards dished out by the cafes to encourage us to ‘drink nine cups, get the tenth free’. There was a real feeling of satisfaction when all the squares were stamped, particularly when you could queue with a friend and smugly offer, “Put your purse away. I’ll get this” whilst inwardly screaming, ‘Ha ha, it’s free’.

Bizarrely, M&S has recently launched a loyalty card for… cards. Is it just me or do you normally just buy one birthday card at a time? Unless your nearest and dearest has sextuplets, the thought of buying six in one go and being just quads away from a free one seems rather far fetched.

And I’m not very happy with my local library. I know they’ve been read the riot act about attracting new visitors but introducing a loyalty card to encourage children to earn a free loan of a DVD seems rather ill judged to me. A free book, perhaps, to enhance their literacy skills but further encouragement to addle their brains in front of Postman Pat is frankly a turn-off.

But there’s no going back. The cards are on the table and we’re all happily picking them up, sticking them in our pockets and loyally collecting the points. And considering the state of the Euro, who knows?… Nectar points may soon be the currency of choice when holidaying on the continent.

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