Make the most of your next shopping adventure!

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Tough economic times call for creative measures, and searching for bargains and freebies is a popular consumer strategy that can help make the most of a shrinking paycheck. Retailers recognize that scoring discounted goods and receiving other special perks brings customers back again and again. To increase consumer loyalty, many retailers are willing to offer substantial rewards to repeat customers.

In theory, rewards programs offer benefits to folks on both sides of the counter. Consumers get goods for less, or additional goods or even store cash or credit through some type of accrued point system, and retailers get repeat business. Whether you realize it or not, the card fob on your keychain (or four or seven) represents a conscious decision to favor one retailer over another. That's a fundamental element of the rewards model. You earn more by purchasing more from a specific merchant or chain.

For you, this may result in instant savings at the register or some other reward. For the retailer, it means an increase in a very valuable demographic. Regular, repeat customers are responsible for as much as 50 percent of a retailer's sales. Any program or strategy that increases that core demographic is huge for the retailer.

There's more going on, too. When you utilize a store's rewards program, you have to give a little to get a little. What you give, besides a very real intent to become a repeat customer, is information. There's some debate about how that information may be used and possibly abused, but there's also the potential for that data to help the retailer customize your rewards to net you coupons and discounts that speak specifically to your lifestyle and interests.

Let's take a closer look at how store rewards programs work and discover a few cagey ways to reap store rewards without getting burned.