Friday, December 7, 2007

Hostage Programs or Loyalty Programs?

The most popular loyalty program among retailers today is the loyalty or affinity card. Consumers are issued a card with the promise of rebates, access to special prices, or promotional merchandise. In exchange, the customer furnishes personal information to the company and allows the monitoring of future purchases.

Since the programs have proliferated, consumers are now inundated with wallets full of plastic or cardboard affinity cards. Each time they make a purchase, they have to search for their "special" cards in order to get discounts that they were able to receive without cards before the programs were enacted.

Few companies have been able to use the data collected effectively. Hallmark has been at the forefront of the movement and is an exception. The card manufacturer created a "Gold Standard" rewards program. Purchases at Hallmark stores are credited to an account developed for each customer. At certain dollar thresholds, consumers are mailed certificates redeemable for merchandise.

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Many of these programs, however, have fallen short of their objectives. It's true that companies have been able to collect consumer data. Unfortunately, by the time systems have been designed to utilize these databases, the information is usually too dated. Some firms never even get that far and wind up in a perpetual collection mode, while consumers keep digging for the cards.

In the 1950s and 60s, green and blue stamps were offered with many purchases. The stamps were redeemed for merchandise at special redemption centers. Popular with consumers, the stamps did not differentiate merchants because they were so widely distributed—even gas stations presented them with each purchase. But customers did notice when they were not available. They looked forward to pasting the small stamps into specially provided books so they could ultimately exchange them for luggage, lamps, and dishes. Consumers were disappointed when the stamps were no longer offered. Banks, gas stations, and other industries vying for the same customers supplied them with gifts and cash as substitutes.

If affinity cards disappeared tomorrow, would customers be outraged? Not likely. Some, such as frequent flyer airline programs, enjoy popularity. However, supermarket and drug store cards are often viewed more as an annoyance. The key to profitability is building long-term relationships with customers, and that requires connection and interdependence.

The true measure of loyalty as opposed to a hostage situation is if the customer would continue to purchase or use a service if there were no monetary incentive. With the lure of valuable hotel points and frequent flyer miles, how would a company know that the customer would stick by them if those programs were no longer available? Is the customer loyal to the company or loyal to the program? It could be that a customer is just waiting for something better to come along, and when it does, he will switch.

Measuring loyalty helps you track results over time. An index based on value, intent to recommend, and intent to repurchase is a good indicator of the degree of a customer's loyalty. Current loyalty program offers must be factored in, however, because programs may or may not be ongoing. Comparing the loyalty index during and after a program gives you a more precise loyalty metric.

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