How to Utilize a Store's Rewards Program

Make the most of your next shopping adventure!
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.

How Do Most Stores' Rewards Programs Work?

Most stores will give you a card to swipe every time you make a purchase.
Most stores will give you a card to swipe every time you make a purchase.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Think of a store rewards program as a reciprocal arrangement. In return for visiting the store and buying goods there regularly, you receive a bonus of some sort. In order for the store to know who you are to reward your loyalty, you have to register. Usually, registration is free of charge, but you may have to reveal information about yourself. This can include your phone number, street address, zip code, income, age, e-mail address and information about your general interests or buying habits. Some rewards applications require more information than others.

After providing the required information, you're given a swipe card (or sometimes a member number). The card can be one of those small fob cards that go on a keychain, or look like a credit card and fit snugly in your wallet. Rewards cards can sometimes be lumped into store credit cards, too, and take the form of instant discounts on eligible credit card purchases.

Once you've been supplied with a card, the idea is to present it every time you buy something at that store. As you buy goods, rewards accrue to your personal store rewards account. Purchases can be rewarded a number of ways, depending on the type of program. They can take the form of an immediate discount at the register. Grocery store rewards cards often work this way. Rewards can take the form of points, too. In this type of rewards program, as you buy goods, your cache of points accumulates until you're eligible for something. That something could be a store credit, merchandise, cash or store cash that can be redeemed through a special catalog or even at other venues the retail chain owns.

The specifics can vary from retailer to retailer, but will typically take the form of discounts, freebies or extras when you buy goods from the retailer. Although this sounds simple, the rules can get complicated. They may include annual rebates that pay out at different rates for tiered purchase totals, or offer points but require that they be redeemed for specific merchandise or within a limited timeframe. For many retail programs, rewards can be a great way to save, but know what you're getting into and keep your options open.

Getting the Most from a Store's Rewards Program

Where rewards are concerned, it pays to read the fine print and understand exactly how the program you're signing up for works. It also pays to be a smart shopper instead of relying too heavily on your rewards card to save money.

About 75 percent of U.S. consumers belong to one type of rewards program or another. Of the top retail programs, grocery rewards were among the first to gain widespread acceptance in the U.S. If you shop for food, chances are you have a grocery rewards card. You probably also recognize some of the pitfalls of relying too heavily on one card for all your groceries. Here's why: Most of the major chain grocery stores offer rewards cards, but many bargain grocers and independent markets don't. There's a good reason for this. Major chains offer really good advertised discounts, but their regular prices can often be higher than those of the discount markets. Discount markets operate on lower margins, so they may not have dramatic advertised bargains, but they can have lower everyday prices on many of the items you buy most often.

If you're a loyal chain grocery store customer, you're saving big on the loss leader items (products sold at little or no profit to attract business), but unless you're careful, even with your rewards card discount, you may be paying more for regularly priced goods. The quick fix is to shop your purchases among a number of markets, and maintain rewards cards at more than one store. Take advantage of sales, but shop the best price for other merchandise wherever you find it. Of course, you may be reducing the volume you purchase at any single store and could lose out on a great coupon for your next coffee purchase or holiday ham, but that's the risk.

There may be other risks, too. When you give out information on a rewards card application, it may seem pretty innocent, but after you start buying goods from that retailer, there's an excellent chance it's keeping close tabs on what, when and how much you buy. If you receive an e-mail containing a cat food coupon just when you need a case of kitty's favorite dry food, don't be too surprised. If the goods in question happen to be tissues and vitamins, there's probably nothing to worry about, but do you really want everything you buy listed in a database somewhere?

Sure, discount coupons are great when they're for things you'd buy anyway, but what happens when you start getting other kinds of discount offers -- like for lingerie (from that specialty store rewards program), or expensive imported chocolate (from that high-end department store rewards program). If those items are guilty pleasures you're trying to control, are the offers helping or hurting your budget? Rewards programs encourage you to buy, even when making additional purchases isn't necessarily in your best interest. Retailers can use the information they garner from your buying habits to pressure you when and where you're the most vulnerable. Of course, the quick fix for this is to stick to a budget and resist the urge to splurge. Rack up rewards points buying items you really need, and then splurge after you have a store rewards credit in hand.

We should add one last important note, here. Rewards programs can take some time to manage. Some involve points that accumulate when you purchase certain things or spend a specific amount within a particular timeframe. The rewards themselves may be store credits that expire or begin to decrease after so many days or months. Whatever the specifics, rewards that aren't limited to immediate register discounts should be monitored closely, and the more cards you have, the more administration is required.

As an example, if you're planning to buy tires, the price at the local big box store may be a little more than what's being offered at the auto store down the road. The purchase may put you over the yearly buying requirement for a 5 percent rebate on your big box rewards card, though, essentially paying back the membership fee and adding a tidy profit, too. It pays to understand how each rewards card works to help you recognize where to make the best use of your buying power.

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Sources

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