Why points just aren't so rewarding: Don Pittis

Overly complex rules and a move toward points programs not attached to any specific merchant mean consumers are increasingly disloyal to businesses offering rewards, experts say. Don Pittis asks if points are going the way of Green Stamps.

Poorer value and less brand association spark backlash against programs

In 1919, the only way this Loblaw grocery store on Toronto's Dundas Street West could keep customers loyal was with quality, service and low prices. As systems of loyalty rewards get harder to use, maybe it's time to go back to that system, says Don Pittis. (Wikipedia)

"Disgust with the whole system." That's how vice-president Mel Fruitman of the Consumers' Association of Canada describes the popular reaction to loyalty programs, following a recent dispute over credit card rewards.

Too much "fine print," shrinking point value and increasing difficulty claiming rewards mean customers are reconsidering the benefit of points, he says.

Fruitman, who's in his 70s, remembers Green Stamps handed out by grocery stores. Loblaws, now a member of the President's Choice reward system, used to have Lucky Green Stamps. Shoppers would collect the stamps and paste them into books. Full books could be traded for prizes.

Now that you've had that bad experience, it's tainted, it's going to linger.- David Williams

But people got sick of the green stamps, deciding that the "rewards" just weren't worth the hassle. Fruitman thinks the current network of rewards systems is heading the same way.

"I think people are getting tired of it," says Fruitman. "I think they're getting frustrated."

Growing frustration

In one of the early loyalty programs, grocery stores handed out stamps like this. Customers would stick them into books and collect 'rewards.' This stamp, improperly used on a letter, was worth one one-100th of a cent. (Postal History Corner)
Reaction to a recent CBC Go Public story on the difficulty of exchanging airline miles points for actual airline seats confirms that view. Many readers said they had given up on points altogether.  

I had a frustrating experience of my own last weekend.

Our household points expert being away, I found myself in the checkout line struggling — and failing — to enter a 19-digit number into the store website using my phone, a necessary step before you can collect points at the till. I carry the number in my wallet scrawled onto a scrap of paper. It had worn off my key fob. From carrying it with keys. (What was I thinking?)

Apparently you cannot get a new fob without changing the number. I've asked. Checkout clerks have repeatedly pressed new cards upon me, but apparently you also have to go onto a website, fill out online forms and convert all your old points to the new number.

Tainted experience

Muttering "I hate points," this time I walked out, in shame, with groceries but no rewards. I did not feel loyal.

"Now that you've had that bad experience, it's tainted, it's going to linger," says David Williams of the University of Saskatchewan's Edwards School of Business.

Williams says one of the most crucial rules for rewards systems is that they should be easy to use. Growing reports of bad experiences, whether on the web or from friends, are turning people off. 

David MacDonald from Environics says that's not what his statistics show. Ten years ago, a survey indicated 99 per cent of Canadians belonged to a loyalty program. A recent survey shows that number is still 99 per cent.

Surveys have shown that 99 per cent of Canadians belong to a loyalty program. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
MacDonald says that not all reward programs suit everyone. It's just a matter of finding the rewards program that is best for you.

His online questionnaire Compare Loyalty Programs created for LoyaltyOne, the company that runs Air Milesallows you to do just that, he says. Another site for choosing between plans that has been created by Calgary's Patrick Sojka is Rewards Canada.

A quick poll of acquaintances shows that making use of points requires a certain dedication, or even a certain type of personality. The true point enthusiasts seem to belong to loyalty programs everywhere they shop.

While most of us belong to one or more programs, that doesn't mean we use them or feel any sense of loyalty, says Andrew Ching, who's researching a European "coalition" program. 

Ching, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, says coalition systems like Air Miles — or these days, Aeroplan — are not connected to any one merchant or service.

Looking for real value

Ching says that unlike Second Cup free coffee stamp cards or even Aeroplan when it was strictly a frequent flyer plan, his research indicates coalition programs make it harder for customers to know whether they are getting real value.

Certainly rewards don't pay as well as they used to. One of Canada's oldest existing systems, Canadian Tire money, once earned five cents per dollar spent. That has shrunk to half a cent on the dollar.

Markus Giesler, a specialist in a field called "market experience design," says that about 20 years ago, marketing experts hit upon the idea of using the concepts of love and relationships to describe merchants' links with customers to keep them coming back.

"That used to work for a while," says Giesler who teaches at York University's Schulich School of Business. But he says as consumers understand more about the huge advantages retailers gain from the consumer information they gather through loyalty programs, they are questioning the fairness of reward systems that seem to offer less and less.

Giesler says merchants are desperate for the data that they collect through reward programs, and growing discontent is sending a strong signal that loyalty plans need to be redesigned. It may be a time for consumers to demand more. Like good service, quality and prices. 

And while millions of Canadians are still addicted to points, that doesn't mean all loyalty programs will continue to survive.

"Some are going to transform," says Giesler. "Some are going to die out."


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.