The Never-Ending Hunt for Points and Rewards

A stack of reward cards from loyalty programsIn 2016, I wrote a blog post called “With This Many Loyalty Cards, How Loyal Can You Be?”

The story was based on the plethora of cards and reward programs that we were offered to pledge our loyalty with a store chain in exchange for points and rewards.

Despite the freebies associated with the programs, don’t we all know that some of those perks come at a price? Homework!

When inflation started to rise, I admit I started watching flyers and offers even more carefully in order to try to stretch our food dollars, whether through sale prices or through bonus points which can later be redeemed like cash.

Fortunately, in retirement, I actually have time to read flyers carefully, cover to cover, rather than scan through them like a squirrel on a caffeine rush.

To this day, no grocery trip is properly planned without checking flyers, making sure my apps are functional (and not logged out), loading offers on my phone, and verifying that the electronic versions of loyalty cards can be accessed quickly in the rush between handing in my reusable grocery bags, unloading products on the conveyor belt and pulling out the correct reward credit card to maximize points.

But you would think that in the years since my 2016 post, those reward systems might have gotten a little more sophisticated.

Unfortunately, for all the chatter in the media about artificial intelligence (AI), I haven’t seen evidence that AI has reached our loyalty programs yet, as I still seem to get offers for products offering beautiful lustrous hair (… I’m almost bald), name brand cookies (… I’m allergic to gluten) and on occasion, products specifically designed for women’s use (… there are no women in this household).

The great irony is receiving bonus offers for products that are frequently used in our household but the week AFTER I have purchased them and will not likely need purchase again for a few weeks or a few months. This seems to happen far too often to be pure coincidence.

I have also been taunted by a certain pharmacy chain, when I purchased almost $75 worth of products on a day when there were no valid bonus point offers, only to open my app the next day and see a surprise offer for a massive number of bonus points on a $75 order, valid for one day only. To me, that was just plain obnoxious!

I have also encountered situations when I receive offers like that, but the big ticket items I would buy to reach that bonus threshold are sold out. I guess other shoppers must have had the same idea.

I’ll never forget a run through another pharmacy chain, where there was an offer for huge bonus points for a $50 order. Easy, right? I had a pretty elaborate shopping list, but not all of the items were available. Nonetheless, the cash register side of my brain took note of the prices as I was filling my basket, and once I was around $55, I decided it was time to check out. Would you believe that some of my items were on sale but there was no signage to indicate that? That being the case, the subtotal before taxes? $49.99!

More recently, I was enjoying lunch with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. While our server was processing my friend’s payment, I took out my phone and opened the restaurant’s rewards app. When the server turned to me to take my payment, she asked, “Oh, what’s that?” I responded that this was her restaurant’s rewards app which left her with an inquisitive look as she said, “Interesting… never saw it before. I’ll check with my manager.” As it happens, the rewards program was cancelled during the pandemic. Well, there goes my hard earned $6.77 in rewards out the window.

Sometimes you win some… sometimes you lose some.

I realize that in all this, there is a price to pay for these offers. Through these apps, companies are collecting data on my shopping habits.

This leads to the fundamental question, is the trade-off of my personal information worth it for the rewards?

When I’ve scored several hundred or several thousand points when the stars of timing, offers, sale prices and bonuses lined up perfectly, I’d say, of course it was worth it.

On those days when I have redeemed points and checked out with items for free or at a substantial discount, I’d also say of course it was worth it.

But on those trips when I’ve spent $50 to $60 and didn’t get any points to my shopping, or a token 25 points are thrown my way, I’ve wondered if my information and my loyalty are truly that valuable to the establishment.

In the quest for savings, I have checked out a grocery store a little farther away, that doesn’t have a loyalty program but whose regular prices and sale prices are often the better deal. By saving a dollar here and a dollar there on a larger shopping trip, I often save more than the cost of the gas it took to get there. Isn’t that food for thought?

To truly benefit from the programs, it really depends on knowing the prices of the items we buy regularly, to be able to recognize truly great deals in the weekly specials.

I admit that having a car to get from place to place and having the time to squeeze in a number of stops in a shopping trip to make the most of it, are definitely assets in the equation, for which I am grateful.

Whether we rely upon loyalty programs or discount outlets, I think that both options hold value-added places in the weekly shopping, when time and energy permit.

But when it comes to loyalty programs, I think that we just have to accept the high points and low points, as just a part of the game.

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