How Customer Loyalty Isn’t Being Rewarded

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From CVS to Starbucks and beyond, retailers have long been pushing customers to sign up for rewards cards, which allow you to build up points towards discounts or freebies with each purchase (and each obligatory card scan). But while stores love that these cards build loyalty and turn occasional shoppers into habitual devotees, there’s one thing they don’t love so much: actually giving stuff away like the reward programs promise.

So what are stores doing? They’re tweaking the programs to make it more difficult for shoppers (and more profitable for stores) for reward levels to be reached. Instead of getting every tenth pizza free, for example, the deal might change to only every fifteenth pizza free. The carrots are constantly extending further and further away—and at some point, you have to feel like a jackass for following along.

A WSJ writer, who, like many of us has seen her wallet and keychain fill up with plastic reward program cards and tabs (guess she doesn’t use the iPhone app CardBank), reflects that enough is enough.

Here’s her experience with Starbucks, which is but one of the stores that recently altered is rewards program to be less rewarding:

I even shelled out $25 for a Starbucks card. Hello, two free lattes (one for signing on, one for my birthday) plus a 10% discount on every drink. In my caffeine-dependent family this translated into a saving of $4 to $5 per week. The investment was recouped, you might say, in a shot…

Earlier this month, my daughter came home with more distressing retail news: Starbucks was dumping my card in favor of a new one with a tiered system of rewards involving stars. I feel both bereft and back in first grade. The bottom line: I’ll get one free beverage for every 15 transactions. Even if said transaction encompasses several drinks, I net but a single star. “We wanted a program that was more inclusive,” said a company spokeswoman. “And the new card is free.”

Well, not quite free. Loading cash on the card and using it to pay for drinks is the only way to reap the benefits of the new program. Just think of those stars as the chain’s way of thanking caffeinistas for what amounts to an interest-free loan. You’re welcome and you’ll find me at Dunkin’ Donuts.

I play along and regularly use a half-dozen reward program cards—knowing full well that I am being played at the same time. But to not use them would mean you’d occasionally be paying extra, in which you’re being taken advantage of in a different way.

As for coffee, you won’t find me at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. I’ll be at home, brewing my own.