Loyalty Programs? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Loyalty Programs!

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Without fear of (much) argument, it’s a fair statement to say that all companies want, and try to generate and achieve, optimum loyalty from their customer bases. They should want this, because study after study shows the financial rewards of having loyal customers. Some companies reach this goal through superior value delivery, built on quality products and services, and positive, consistent customer experiences. For the past several decades, many companies have relied on customer loyalty cards or programs, by which they can track purchase behavior and give rewards for repeat and volume buying activity.

Customer loyalty programs are especially popular among retailers. During the years, retailers have found these programs to be powerful business tools within their highly competitive markets. But some retailers have completely disavowed loyalty programs, either never initiating them in the first place or canceling them, in favor of reduced pricing. In fact, this has become something of a trend. What’s behind it?

Let’s start with the biggest retailer—Walmart. The company has long claimed that a loyalty program isn’t needed because its prices are so low. Walmart believes that loyalty programs can, indeed, provide excellent information about customers who participate; however, as one Walmart executive put it: ” … some of the loyalty programs are very expensive, and we don’t think that serves everyday low cost and everyday low price.” Lower-than-competition everyday prices has been Walmart’s merchandising and marketing mantra since its inception. But, at least for groceries and sundry products, that often isn’t the case. Supermarket chains like Save-A-Lot and Aldi’s, neither of which has a loyalty program, will often beat Walmart’s item-for-item pricing by a significant margin. And other competitors can use their loyalty programs to selectively pick products, and individual customers, to offer pricing—which undermines Walmart.

As for generating customer purchase data, Walmart has a “scan & go” app for mobile devices, which allows customers to scan their own items as they shop; and this provides the company with valuable information on what customers are purchasing, the length of time they’re shopping in the store, and what offers and coupons might drive future purchases. Walmart uses additional methods of understanding individual customer purchases. One of these is Walmart credit cards. Another is reloadable MasterCard and Visa debit cards. A third is “Bluebird,” a prepaid debit card which functions as Walmart customers’ alternative to having a checking account, with which they can make deposits, pay bills—and shop at Walmart. Like Tesco is already doing in the U.K, Walmart has been considering development of its own bank, which would provide even more customer data.

Asda, a Walmart-owned supermarket chain in the U.K, also has no loyalty program. It’s the second-largest supermarket company, behind Tesco; and, as in the U.S., newer low-priced chains, such as Aldi, are actively competing with Asda. In place of a loyalty program, Asda believes it provides customers with what they want most, a “great multichannel retail experience.” The chain, according to executives, focuses on the key fundamentals: prices, quality, convenience and service. Alex Chrusczcz, Asda’s head of insights and pricing, offers two explanations of how the organization is endeavoring to build customer loyalty:

  • “Aspire to treat customers equally, or you’ll create a fractured brand and shopping experience. If you have someone paying one price and another customer with a coupon paying a different price, the perception of the brand is becoming fractured. Make sure it’s consistent.”
  • “Be pragmatic in terms of technology and analytics. They aren’t a silver bullet. Use these tools and combine them with the experience of your team.”

From my perspective, the second explanation is common sense; however, the first statement is really questionable—even counterintuitive, if a subordinating goal of loyalty behavior is to help drive customer-centricity. Simply put, all customers are not equal in value; and marketing strategies which treat them as such often create lower revenue.

In the U.S., regional supermarket chain Publix has no loyalty program. The company doesn’t have, as a result, the ability to track, at a household level, what customers are and aren’t purchasing in their stores. What Publix does, instead of loyalty cards, is try different alternative approaches to build sales. One of these, for example, was to test a program where shoppers could set up an online account where they could digitally clip coupons; and then, in the Publix store, the discounts they’d set up online could be automatically applied by typing in their phone numbers. Publix also has a BOGO program for their own brands, and accepts competitors’ coupons in their stores.

Some retailers do more than emphasize the sales and service fundamentals. They build genuine passion for, and bonding with, the brand by creating a more human, emotional connection. And, though there are few organizations like this, retailers such as Trader Joe’s are the exception that proves the rule. Trader Joe’s has no customer loyalty program. What they have is enthusiasm, achieved through differentiated, every-changing customer experiences, enhanced by upbeat, helpful employees. This has enabled Trader Joe’s to generate sales per square foot that are double the sales per square foot of Whole Foods. So, another way of stating that Trader Joe’s creates loyalty behavior without a program is to say: The shopping experience is, defacto, the loyalty program.

Now, we come to retailers which had customer loyalty programs, usually of long-standing, and elected to discontinue them. Actually, much of this has been done by one organization, Cerberus Capital Group, the early 2013 purchaser of multiple regional retail supermarket chains from Supervalu (Shaw’s, Acme, Star, Albertson’s and Jewel-Osco). Calling the new positioning “card-free savings,” and reflective of the first strategy stated above by Asda, each of the chains issued statements with themes like “We want buying to be simple for all, so that every (name of company) customer gets the same price whether a loyalty card has been used or not.” Additionally, and again like Asda, these chains have said they will go back to the basics: clean stores, well-stocked shelves, reduced checkout time, clearly marked sale items and creation of a more customer-focused culture. Some of their executives have also theorized that the chains will now adopt a more local-level approach, rather than customer-level, to their decision-making, and that individual store managers will now be more actively involved in driving successful performance.

So, the chains acquired by Cerberus appear to believe that “sunsetting,” or eliminating these programs, is a calculated risk and that they would still find good ways of providing value to retain more loyal customers, as well as incentives for those with the potential to move from purchase infrequency. Most analysts, however, felt that Cerberus eliminated the programs largely because the chains they purchased were either not mining card data, or not effectively analyzing and applying this material for better marketing and merchandising, thus making the loyalty systems too expensive to maintain.

Cerberus has entered into takeover discussions with California-based Safeway, which also owns Vons and Pavilion. If this sale takes place, it’s a good bet that these chains will also drop their reward cards, because Cerberus-owned supermarkets clearly don’t need, or want, no stinkin’ loyalty programs.

Use Social Media and Email to Get More Customers and Keep Them Coming Back

Apathy kills more customers than bad service and poor quality products combined. Loyalty is inspired when people are interested, engaged and valued. The top priority of every business that wants long-term growth and profitability is acquiring customers and keeping them coming back. Focusing on one without the other is a recipe for disaster.

Apathy kills more customers than bad service and poor quality products combined. Loyalty is inspired when people are interested, engaged and valued. The top priority of every business that wants long-term growth and profitability is acquiring customers and keeping them coming back. Focusing on one without the other is a recipe for disaster.

Customer acquisition without retention is expensive. Costs typically run $25 to $75 per customer depending on the industry and competition. Three or more orders are required to break even. Profitability and growth come when people continue to buy year after year. Companies that excel in acquiring customers but don’t retain them will eventually crumble under the high costs.

Retention without acquisition is equally dangerous. Natural attrition will eventually leave the company without customers. When people complete their buying lifespan, they leave. Replacements are vital to keep the company moving forward. Companies without a stable of new customers coming in on a regular basis are dying. It is only a matter of time until operating costs exceeds revenue.

Apple is a good example of a company that has a good balance between acquisition and retention. The company keeps people coming back even when the products offer less performance than those from competitors. Loyalty remains high even after “antennagate” in 2010 because people are so emotionally invested in Apple’s culture leaving is harder than staying. Any company without a customer cult-like obsession for its products would have suffered irreparable damage from a similar challenge.

What if your company isn’t Apple and has little hope of creating an obsessive fan base? How do you continuously acquire customers and keep them coming back? Creating an integrated strategy that uses the best features of individual channels to connect with people and provide an engaging experience is the key to your success. Start by combining social activity with email campaigns and expand from there. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Let people know that you value their business. Neglect is one of two components that make it easy for competitors to snag your customers. Use custom emails to keep the connection between customer and company strong. People know the difference between “personalized” (insert name here) and “personal” (specific messages about orders or challenges). The same technology that creates personalized messages can create personal ones. Make the effort to send custom emails that invite a two-way conversation on a regular basis. Most people won’t respond, but you will still plant a seed that can grow into loyalty.
  • Keep things interesting. Boredom is the second component that opens the door for competitors to steal your customers’ attention with flashy ads, deep discounts, and the promise of something new. Shake things up by injecting new templates in your email campaigns and offering fun activities on your social platforms. After receiving the same format multiple times and repeatedly seeing the same types of posts, people miss the message because their mind tricks them into thinking they’ve seen it before. Avoid this by injecting fresh looks and participation opportunities.
  • Have a plan that moves people from participating in social communities to subscribing to your emails and vice versa. An email sign-up page on Facebook and links to your social platforms at the bottom of emails is not a plan. You need specific calls-to-action that include good reasons for people to move between channels. The process needs to be easy and fun. The more fun you make it, the more likely they will respond.
  • Reward people. Use great offers to get people to convert from prospect to customer. Provide even better benefits for long-term loyalty. Create a special club for people to join when they’ve placed their fifth order or reached a sales benchmark to encourage them to keep coming back. Include membership in private groups on social platforms and exclusive email messages. Let the people who provide the most benefits to your company receive the best offers first.