Divided Loyalties

How soon can we replace plastic with pointer fingers?

Dangling on my key ring are more plastic loyalty cards than keys—one for every grocery store in my market, plus a couple of video stores. The irony is that I find myself food shopping at SuperTarget, which has no loyalty program, just as frequently as the traditional grocers.

As I talked with Gary Hawkins of Green Hills Market for this month’s feature story on his store’s implementation of a biometrics-based loyalty program (page 150), I was thrilled at the prospect of conducting my own plastic shred-a-thon as soon as biometrics become more mainstream.

Hawkins’ comment about the inability of large retail chains to maintain accuracy and credibility in data collected through existing card-swipe programs rang particularly true. Just last week when my Harris Teeter VIC card refused to be read in that store, the cashier flipped to the Lowes Foods’ card that was on my key ring beside the VIC, and swiped it instead.

A month earlier, when virtually the same scenario played out in Kroger, I was surprised that the cards were so interchangeable. Apparently, POS systems don’t care which loyalty program is being used; as long as a loyalty card is swiped, the consumer earns the in-store discounts. But I had to wonder what, if anything, this did to the retailers’ back-end data collections.

In hindsight, I realized existing loyalty-card programs are being used primarily as a lure, and rarely (if ever) as a learning opportunity to strengthen the retailer’s relationship with its customer. Therein lies the magic of Green Hills’ SmartShop program.

Loyalty programs in other retailing sectors are more easily managed without the prerequisite plastic card. For instance, by sharing our home phone number, any member in our family can enjoy the benefits of Barnes & Noble’s membership program without actually presenting the card.

Apparel stores such as Chico’s and J. Jill that offer discounts to frequent, loyal shoppers are more than willing to access the consumer’s account without the plastic card. However, in order to verify the account the shopper has to be willing to write her social security number on a piece of paper and hand it over to the cashier. Given the prevalence of identity theft, that simple act could present risks for the shopper and liabilities for the retailer if the paper is not returned to the shopper when the transaction is completed.

In each of these payment scenarios, the ultimate success and security of the retailer’s loyalty program resides in the hands of the POS associate. If a grocery cashier has not been taught the importance of scanning her store’s branded loyalty card, she will likely opt for the fastest, easiest solution to satisfy the shopper standing in her line—even when that means potentially corrupting the data with another retailer’s card.

It is not enough to tell employees what to do; the reasons why processes are handled to certain specifications have to be communicated to every store manager and store-level associate.