Updated on 09.18.14

Maximizing Customer Loyalty Programs

Trent Hamm

...Even If You've Never Tried One!

Customer loyalty programs are those free programs a person can sign up for at a particular retailer than offers rewards of various kinds for spending certain amounts of money or making certain numbers of purchases. Although it can be a bit of a hassle to sign up the first time, afterwards it is an extremely convenient way to get lots of lucrative coupons and discounts.

I’ve been doing this for years, but I often notice that many people simply don’t participate in such programs. They’re missing out – these companies ship out great coupons and store credit all the time. Might as well collect, right?

Six Steps to Free Stuff

1. Get a new, separate email address

I signed up for a Gmail account specifically to collect the mailings that come from these programs. This prevents my normal email from getting inundated with such things, plus whenever I plan on visiting a retailer, I log into that email address and search for available offers.

2. Always sign up if the program is free

Even if you think you’ll only go to a place once a year at most, a customer loyalty program is worth signing up for. I recommend giving that email address you’ve created (because some plans send out excellent coupons by email), but try to minimize the actual personal data you give to them. If it doesn’t violate the terms of service of the program, I encourage you to give a bogus address and phone number, in fact, because that info is regularly sold to telemarketers.

3. Search that email before you go shopping

I quite often get pretty good offers from various retailers by email, things like 30% off any single book in the store or other things like that. If I’m going to stop at a store to buy a book anyway, that coupon is like gold. Even better, most rewards programs allow you to accrue points for store credit, and they’ll usually email that address each time you reach a store credit threshold – also worth knowing if you’ve built up $20 in credit somewhere.

4. Don’t let the loyalty program affect your purchases

Almost always, I’ve made up my mind about what I’m going to purchase before I ever walk in the door of a store. If I happen to have a coupon, great – if I happen to have store credit, great. But these don’t influence my buying decision, nor does the number of points I might earn for the purchase.

5. Strive to use a card as often as you can when you make a purchase

If you’re at a store, by default ask if they have a customer rewards program. If they do, either sign up or remember that you already have and use that card.

6. If you start collecting a lot of cards, use some ingenuity to keep your wallet thin

You can either make your own customer loyalty card that combines several such programs, or else use the service at JustOneClubCard.com to keep all of your customer numbers and barcodes on one single card in your wallet. If someone asks questions (about 10% of the time for me), just tell the truth: say that you scanned your own cards and put them onto one card to save space in your wallet.

Notes on Free Customer Loyalty Programs That I Use

1. Airlines

I’m a member of the frequent flyer programs for several airlines, but I have by far the most miles racked up with American (AAdvantage) and United (Mileage Plus) because they are the ones that fly the most flights out of Des Moines, the airport I use the most by far. If you fly frequently (as I did for a while), you can really rack up the miles and eventually use them for free airline flights.

2. Best Buy

Their Reward Zone program is solid, effectively offering 2% in store credit on your purchases. Since their prices on most video games are the same or $5 better than games elsewhere locally, I tend to buy my games there and build up credit.

3. Hotels

Almost every major hotel chain has a program, and I’m a member of most of them. Since on the rare occasion we actually use a hotel we tend to make reservations, I just take along the card that I know I’m going to use and then present it at the desk. This has actually earned us a free night at a Marriott.

4. Staples

Although I rarely go there, I do have a Staples Rewards card. Mostly, it’s a rebate program that seems to earn incredibly varying amounts depending on the day and the item purchased. I have used the rebates to get some free office supplies, however.

I use these programs mostly because these are the retailers most commonly available in northern Iowa. In other areas, there are many more choices, from additional retailers to grocery chains that use such programs (like Albertson’s and Winn-Dixie).

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  1. Tiffany says:

    This is a GREAT article! I use many programs, but my favorite program is Shoppers Drug Mart (in Canada), and I redeem my points there multiple times per year. Not only do they have days where you spend $50 and get 20x the points, they also have special redemption days where your points are worth more. With careful planning and no impulse buys, you can really maximize your dollar.

  2. Siena says:

    I didn’t know Borders has a rewards card. I’ve shopped there and no one mentioned a thing. I do have a BN membership card (cost $20/year I think) and I get coupons a lot, but if I can get the same sort of deals with a Borders card I’ll switch, especially since the Borders is closer to my house.

    I got a Target card specifically for their Pharmacy Rewards program since I get my prescriptions there BUT I pay off the card every month–and I wouldn’t recommend it for those who are former shopaholics. However, one of the perks of the Target card is you get a lot of good coupons in the mail.

    I’d like to hear where other readers get their rewards or bonuses.

  3. Amanda says:

    The Borders card I got was free. I wasn’t about to pay $20 for the BN one, especially since I try to get most of my books from the library.

    Occasionally grocery store loyalty cards will be worthwhile. The trick is, though, that the specials they run are usually on boxed, processed, unhealthy foods. If you’re trying to eat healthy, it’s probably not worth your time to give the store your information.

    The Hilton hotels rewards program isn’t bad. I used to travel for business and racked up a few free nights. I think the card is good not only at the regular Hiltons, but on their budget names as well.

  4. Steve W says:

    I’m a big fan of my Marriott Rewards Visa. Many free nights a year from that one (I business travel 40 nights a year, avg.). My kids love staying at Residence Inns when we commute back and forth from the beach vacation, and I will occasionally surprise my wife with a no-kids overnight at a Marriott 4 Star, which, like any sane person, she loves. And it costs me nothing — I always pay off the card (1/2 the points come from business expenses anyway) and somehow I’ve managed to expense the $15 annual fee….

  5. martin says:

    I work at Staples, and you actually don’t need the card to use the rewards at all. Just give the cashier your phone number and it should come up for them. I think other places can do this as well

  6. vh says:

    Jeez. Do you realize how much of your privacy you give up in exchange for a few pennies’ discount on already overpriced merchandise? Why on earth would you give a retailer your telephone number and address and let it track your every move in the store–recording every purchase you make, “reward-eligible” or not, by your name, phone number, address, and probably other personal information?

    And doesn’t it strike you how unfair these things are? I mean, if a company can afford to sell a product at a fair price to someone who’s willing to part with personal, private information, it can afford to sell it at a fair price to everyone.

    I try to avoid doing business with companies that think they have a right to snoop into my private business–and I consider what I buy, how much I buy, and when I buy it to be my personal, private business. That’s why I buy dog food at Trader Joe’s, not at Petco or Petsmart (the premium TJ dog food, BTW, is comparable to the best premiums at either of those pet emporia). Where, because I have limited choices, I HAVE to shop at stores that demand a card to get a fair price–such as Safeway–I fill in the card application form with fake information. Safeway, for example, has my dog’s name and the local Safeway corporate office’s telephone number.

    In some cases, saving a few bucks isn’t worth the real cost.

  7. bunny says:

    cvs has a pretty amazing reward card where you can get discounts for using it, as well as earn money back to use in the store at a later date. on top of that, you get back a percentage of the money you spent in the store at the end of each season.
    i love to read the message boards here: http://www.afullcup.com/upload/cvs/
    these people really work the system, using cvs’s own coupons and discounts on top of manufacturer coupons, to get all kinds of stuff for free or close to it. sometimes they can be over the top (one woman’s husband acquired $2300 worth of stuff for about $118 in one day, visiting many different stores to do so), but it is pretty cool to see that if you pay attention to the discounts available to you, you can really work their system.

  8. shadox says:

    My favorite program is United Airlines’ Frequest Flier program. I fly a lot, and have achieved Premier status. I have racked up close to 300,000 miles – even though I use it to buy stuff. E.g. all my magazine subscriptions, a Roomba robot vacum cleaner etc.

    Unfortunately, I have had very little luck getting free flights for my miles.

    Safeway has a nice partnership with United’s frequent flyer program – you get miles for your grocery shopping. It’s not much, but I got about 500 miles this year through this program, and my wife earned about the same amount.

    The Best Buy Reward Zone program is so-so. Their prices for most things are more expensive than, say, Target, so the coupons they mail you pretty much off-set the price difference. I do like shopping there, though.

  9. Sarah says:

    vh, for many of these programs, you can use fake personal information. I actually take a certain pleasure in fouling up their system this way.

  10. KarenFLA says:

    If you put in the Marriott rewards number on the computer when you book the room, you don’t have to take the card with you when you check in. We have a lot of Marriott points. Holiday Inn also has a good Priority Club program. Some of the Holiday Inns and Crowne Plazas will give you a coupon towards the cost of breakfast when you check in if you are a Priority Club member. Once in a while, you can get a free upgrade to a nicer room. They’re cheaper than Marriott, so they’re very good for family trips.
    I like the CVS savings, too. I’ve saved a lot that way. I used a manufacturer’s coupon with the CVS coupon and save double that way.
    Where we live in FL, Publix supermarkets take the coupons of their competitors so you only have to make one stop.
    I don’t mind giving them the personal information, and I haven’t received junk mail from other places as a result. I have my phone number listed with the initials of my husband and myself and the vast majority of the junk mail comes addressed to that fictional entity, so I just toss that mail unopened into the recycling bin. My mother used to put all that stuff in the name of her cat, who at one point was offered a nice line of credit from a brokerage house. All the phone solicitations were to the cat and she would tell the callers he was taking a nap or out for a walk. I don’t care if the stores track what I purchase, as long as I get coupons for those items. I never give anyone my true date of birth as that can be used for identity theft.

  11. Eileen says:

    I agree with Karen, certain aspects of privacy are crucial, others–“who cares.” I take the appropriate precautions against identity theft but what different does it make if someone knows what brand of toothpaste I use.

  12. Taylor says:

    About video games.. stick to used games! They’re guaranteed by Gamestop (and most other stores) and even the newest of popular games are $5-10 cheaper than the brand new copies. Most are $20+ cheaper.. I think it trumps Best Buy’s reward zone :) Happy Savings

  13. vh says:

    Here’s what difference your privacy makes:

    When you give over your name, address, and phone number and you give a corporation permission to track your behavior, none of that data is protected by law. A company is under no constraints that prevent it from selling or giving your information to anyone else.

    So, let’s say you quit your job and start your own business. You need to buy health insurance. The health insuror could in theory go to Safeway, Albertson’s, et alii and purchase the past year or two worth of your buying data, and what do the insurors find? Lo! You buy two or three bottles of wine a week, and not only that, heaven help us, you buy a carton of cigarettes every now and then. Think you’re going to get that health insurance? And you’ll never know why you were turned down, or why your premiums are twice as much as your teetotalling neighbor’s.

    Or, let’s say Safeway restrains itself from selling your information to the highest bidder. Let’s say instead your marriage falls apart. Your spouse’s lawyers, who are trying to wrest custody of your kids away from you, subpoena Safeway, which forks over the last three years’ worth of your buying habits to the court. Like your beer and wine? Smoke a bit? Buy the occasional risque magazine? All that information can be used against you.

    Paranoia aside — and I think you can argue that these are very real possible scenarios, not products a fevered brain — in a society that grows more and more crowded and more and more intrusive in every way, privacy is an extremely valuable commodity. As a healthy human being, you need to know that your private life is YOUR private life, and that your every step and breath are not being watched by every commercial and government interest that comes along. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what every commercial and government interest out there wants to do (are you aware that you can hardly go anywhere these days without being recorded on a camera?). In this brave new world, we need to keep a grip on our right to be left aone.

    Since you can hardly buy anything without an intrusive shopping card designed to keep an eye on you, the best defense is to lie, lie, and lie some more: supply fake information every which way you turn. I personally resent a system that forces me to lie to hang on to a principal of great value to me….and that should be of great value to all of us.

    The loss of privacy is huge. It is an enormous loss to the American people and an enormous loss to our humanity.

    And that is what difference it makes.

  14. Eileen says:

    Sorry vh, I think that is a very paranoid view and I feel very sorry that you are so tortured by this. I know what I buy and none of the scenarios you quote are even within the realm of realistic possibility. So I am totally comfortable with someone knowing I prefer Crest over Colgate and thus supplying me with coupons for such. And I don’t allow anything to “force” me to lie, I find other choices if something concerns me. So I stand by my viewpoint, it makes no difference at all.
    No need to respond, because you won’t change my viewpoint and clearly I won’t change yours, so this is an agree to disagree situation.

  15. FeeFiFoto says:

    UPromise.com offers rebates on purchases made with registered credit cards and/or though participating sites, which go directly into tax-free college funds.

  16. Mrs. D C says:

    I really like the ideas. I tend to use the ‘EasySaver” program at Walgreens. They have a book with coupons and discounts for the month. If you buy items from the catalog then follow the directions, Walgreens will send you a check for the rebates of the month. If you opt for a gift card they will put an additional 10% of the rebate on the card also. If you watch the weekly flyers they even let you know when an item will be free using the program.

  17. Sandy says:

    I’m with FeeFiFo
    we use the UPromise program and have the no-fee card, and we’ve been able to save nearly $2000 in about 5 years, just by using the card and shopping through their website…5 more years til my oldest starts college, and we’ll likely have nearly $4000, just by using this program! Not bad, I think!

  18. shanks says:

    vh is right, you need to be a little more discreet about the recorded purchases. In a case where a person slipped inside a store, when he sued the store, the store tried to insinuate that he was drunk by showing purchases of liquor by him.

    There was no evidence he was drunk when he slipped but there was the purchase receipt of liquor.

    What he does with liquor is upto him but the store did try to wiggle out by introducing his purchasing habit.

  19. rstlne says:

    I have a wallet full of rewards cards. In practice though, I’ve only gotten a few rewards and I go a long time between those rewards because I really don’t shop enough. My most useful cards were the CVS and Borders cards to get store discounts.

  20. Dana says:

    Please don’t just pick a random phone number and start using it to sign up. We’ve had someone giving out ours, and it’s a real pain in the butt. I copied down the number of a payphone and give that out so I’m not inconveniencing anybody at home.

  21. Sm4k says:

    About using gmail to monitor these offers, there are a few tricks that make it pretty easy to keep things organized.

    When you sign up for something, sign up using your address + the store name (e.g. if you sign up for Best Buy Rewards, and your email address is thesimpledollar@gmail.com, sign up using thesimpledollar+bestbuy@gmail.com). Email will still be delivered to thesimpledollar@gmail.com, but it will have that extra tag on it. You can then set up filters and rules in gmail so that anything that comes to thesimpledollar+bestbuy@gmail.com gets put into the ‘Best Buy’ filter. Easy to keep a visually organized inbox, and to track down who sold your email address when you start getting tons of spam.

  22. Caeli says:

    Dana, that’s a great point. I always use an old phone number from before I last moved. Last time I checked it was still disconnected, but they may reassign it, so I think I will change the info on my cards.
    When I shop at Kroger’s, my favorite grocery store, I get great discounts with the card. Also, even though I lost the card years ago I just type in the phone number mentioned above on the key pad and it comes up in their system–unlike Giant Eagle, where the cashier gives you a dirty look, asks for your ID, then sits on the phone for 5 minutes while someone looks it up before starting to scan the groceries. I have gotten $50 worth of free groceries unexpectedly twice in 5 years by using this card. It’s not much, but it’s very nice to get that surprise at the check out.
    Sadly, many things still don’t come out cheaper than Walmart, such as meat, diapers (a box of 100 for $13!!), milk, etc. So even though I hate shopping there, my extremely small food budget almost makes it through the month if I shop at Walmart instead, leaving my Kroger’s membership useless at the moment.

  23. Sam Jones says:

    I’m a big fan of Costco’s executive membership coupled with their American Express card. You get a full 3% back on all purchases this way and if you don’t spend enough to make it worthwhile, you get a refund on your membership fee.

  24. ClickerTrainer says:

    I think, if the grocery store has a “savings” card, and they are collecting all that data on me, why don’t they meet me at the door with what they already know I am going to buy? Now THAT would be customer service.

    Personally, I think my data, with fake contact info or not, is worth more than 10-20% off.

    Disclosure: I’m a database admin

  25. Brad says:

    None of the rewards programs listed really sound like a value. Borders, Staples, BestBuy. . . all of the products sold by these vendors can be found for around 1/2 the cost at online retailers.

    On another note. Try searching “Shoppers Enrolled In Loyalty Programs Spend More Money.”

    I suppose people buy things they otherwise wouldn’t if they perceive it as a value.

  26. Kim says:

    This is a hobby of mine.
    I use Starwood for most of my hotels (and work out double credit so it doesn’t require many stays to get Gold, which ups my number of points on every stay). And since the closest hotel to my parents’ house is in that system, it comes in handy and have racked up enough points for 4 or 5 free nights there just by visiting my parents while keeping a respectable distance.
    Priority Club is good too simply cause they’re everywhere and though I don’t stay as often, I do use their Priority Club Dining to rack up points at local restaurants when I’m not visiting the Holiday Inns.
    The other one we use a lot is the BevMo club card. Free to sign up, gets you the specials on wine, beer, and liquor, and racks up to a 5% off coupon every once in a while. The benefit is debatable of course, since it doesn’t even cover the tax. But if you’re a drinker, it adds up quick.

    And since I’m a creature of habit, I have a fair number of “Buy 10 get 1 free” stamp cards. No tracking involved, but they regularly get me free stuff I would normally spend money on. It only takes up space in my wallet.

    Though privacy is an issue to me, none of the places I sign up with are for everyday purchases. I keep everything sent to a PO Box, and some, like bevmo are attached to old phone#.

  27. Aimee says:

    My CVS card definately has MVP status. Last month, I got $17 in “extra care bucks” which you can spend like cash in the stores. You can really save a ton of money with it especially if you combine it with other coupons. As for privacy issues – your information is already out there, you might as well have some control over it.

  28. Suzy says:

    vh & others concerned with privacy –
    I respect and share your opinions about giving out too much personal information, truly. It’s disturbing how much various entities (stores, doctors offices, etc.) demand just “for their records”.

    Having said that however, I would also like to point out that unless you pay for everything in CASH and not a credit card, your purchases can be and probably are tracked anyway. I have several friends who work in the IT department at Mastercard, and their jobs entail maintenance and development of some pretty enormous “Usage” databases.

  29. Marge says:

    I work somewhat in this industryl; not directly though we study quite a bit about loyalty programs in general. These large retailers have been pounded in trade journals for not having true loyalty programs because they never used the data to understand who their customers were and basically just giving discounts to anyone who walks in the door. In the loyalty industry this accompishes nothing. So now that you see these pointless cards being disbanned (like Albertsons reward card), they face new criticism. The reason they get your personal information is not too snoop on your private life for devious plans. It’s to better understand what you like to buy so they can better target more RELEVENT offers to you. They also want to give greater rewards to those who spend more money with them than the occassional “cherry picker”. Personally, I would rather get customized offers instead of deals for junk I never use. IT is not in their best business interest to use personal information to snoop on your personal affairs and try to do devious things. This has greater threats of bring their business to an end. Still, if you don’t like handing out your address and phone number, just don’t. Their are laws about internet emails that require companies to get your permission to send advertising, disclose who they share your personal information to. You will see it on every email tag and every web page.
    If not, they know the FTC will be on them hard and heavy. Their are others laws in effect that I won’t go into. I don’t worry so much about who knows that always like to buy organic milk and products that are natural, or how much I spend on it weekly. I hope they find that out so I can influence the manufactureres. I would like to get better quality products on the shelf and get the other toxic crap off the shelves that’s polluting young kids who are growing up with that stuff.

  30. Monica says:

    I’m with vh on this one. I don’t trust these corporations with my information. Even if they are not misusing it now, perhaps they will in the future.

    The only “loyalty” cards that I have are memberships where you get discounts on every purchase (at the fabric store members pay less for everything) or where you have to join to shop (co-op).

    Suzy’s point about credit cards is a good one. I use mine as little as possible (mostly for other reasons though).

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