Be True to Your Store

Photo credit: osseous (cropped), CC BY 2.0.

Do you belong to customer reward programs? As I looked through the contents of my wallet, I realized that I belonged to more than I thought. But are reward programs worth it?

Cards from Raley’s, Walgreens, Plenti, CVS, Eddie Bauer, Dimple Records, Barnes & Noble, Ulta, Sephora, Office Depot, Jamba Juice, Panera Bread, Capital City Beads, Ikea, Best Buy, Total Beauty Experience, and even Hot Topic cluttered my wallet. No wonder it was so heavy. But was weighing down my wallet saving me money?

I lived across the street from a Raley’s for ten years, so naturally I joined their rewards program and got a “Something Extra” card. During each visit to the supermarket, I would swipe the card to get one point for each $1 spent. Personalized offers were sent by email periodically, based on prior purchases. Once I logged into the website, I could accept offers, such as $1 off frozen quiche or $1 off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, which would be in effect for several weeks. Once every quarter, I received a voucher for $5 for every 500 points, plus $1 for each additional 100 points. The voucher comes in the mail, along with more coupons based on your shopping habits. It seems somewhat Orwellian to get a coupon for detergent just when you are ready to run out. But, like online cookies, your preferences are noted electronically.

Sometimes, Raley’s prices are higher than somewhere like Target, and the additional savings just makes the price comparable to the prices at discount stores. But stores know that customers love sales — and coupon clippers love to think that they are getting a bargain, even when they’re not. Customer loyalty and convenience are stronger incentives than lower prices.

My relationship with Eddie Bauer is more complicated. Ten years ago, I was a huge fan of the brand. There was a store at the local mall and two outlets in the Sacramento area, where I bought a lot of clothes and the occasional backpack. Over the years, it seemed like their merchandise had changed. Canvas backpacks gave way to high-tech fibers. Even the cut of the jeans felt different. When the mall store and one of the outlet stores closed, I went to Eddie Bauer less often. Even the Eddie Bauer Friends card failed to get me back into the store on a regular basis. Eddie and I were more acquaintances than friends. But the quarterly $10 coupons enticed me to visit the outlet occasionally. Last week, I went to the store to redeem a coupon before it expired. All regularly priced items were 60 percent off and all clearance items were 40 percent off. I got two T-shirts for $3.22, after the discount and the coupon were applied. But I won’t be heading back to the store any time soon.

Last year, I bought several electronic items from Best Buy. I presented the “My Best Buy” card during every transaction, but the only gift that I get from Best Buy is a $5 coupon once or twice a year. On my birthday, I got a 15 percent off coupon, but everything that I was interested in buying was exempt from the discount. So what was the point of the card? Shoppers only earn 0.5 points for every $1 spent. The website says that I can “Enjoy access to special sales and exclusive member offers.” There is free shipping for purchases over $35, but I usually buy online and have the items shipped to my local store for pickup. I need to have 250 points to get a $5 gift certificate, but I only have 234. It’s unlikely that I’ll be spending $16 in the store before the end of the month. Maybe when I am ready to buy a new laptop later in the year, they will have one of those “exclusive member offers.”

I don’t wear much makeup or buy much perfume, so my Sephora and Ulta cards seldom see the light of day. Each company gives away mini-sized products as a birthday gift, which is usually the only time that I go into the store. I might buy a lipstick or two at Sephora in a year, or a headband or two at Ulta, but I’m not one of the customers that regularly takes advantage of their loyalty programs.

Next to Raley’s, I probably use my Barnes & Noble card the most often — even though it’s a card with a yearly fee. Barnes and Noble card members get a 10 percent discount on almost every purchase, and the store regularly sends coupons via e-mail and snail mail for even deeper discounts. They have free express mail shipping, which I use for sending presents to friends. I’m sure that my savings more than equals the $25 annual fee. But is it cheaper than Amazon?

I use the rest of my customer rewards cards so infrequently that I rarely think about them. Today, I got an email from Office Depot informing me that my 84-cent reward certificate was available. When I buy and sell stuff at Dimple Records, I might get a few dollars off the purchase of a used CD. If I get $380 worth of stamps on my Total Beauty Experience loyalty card in a year, I will get $25 off my next purchase of $25 or over. They have nice gift items, but I will never spend over $380. I also have a Total Beauty Experience VIP card. When the store opened over 20 years ago, the owner gave a “10 percent off everything” card to everyone who came into his then tiny shop. I like to present the card to show that I am an OC (Original Customer). I only use the Plenti card at Macy’s and Rite Aid, places where I rarely shop. I don’t visit CVS or Walgreens unless I can’t find an over-the-counter health product at Target. Jamba Juice and Panera are also places that I visit only once or twice a month, which means it could take a long time to accumulate points. I went to Capital City Beads only once, when I erroneously thought that I would start making my own jewelry. My interest in Hot Topic is lukewarm these days. But I did get free birthday meatballs at Ikea for my birthday.

Even though they don’t have a card, my favorite thrift store, Thrift Town (the store featured in the Academy Award-nominated film Lady Bird), has a VIP program. Like Raley’s, customers get one point for every $1. After accumulating 100 points, customers get $5 off of a purchase of $15 or more. They also send out email coupons to VIP members every week or so and have discounts every Monday for seniors.

Do discount and loyalty programs really provide savings to customers? For the most part, I don’t think they do. But America is a nation of joiners and we love to think that we are part of an exclusive club that gives us special access. Even though each program probably gives data about our personal habits to those who collect our information for nefarious reasons, I doubt if we will remove ourselves from these programs any time soon.

I need to go to Raley’s to get my $1 off Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch.

Beatrice M. Hogg is a coal-miner’s daughter and freelance writer who was raised in Western Pennsylvania and has lived in Northern California for twenty-five years, where she wrote her novel, Three Chords One Song, and continues to write about music and life in general.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.