Customer Loyalty Programs That Work

Thanks to ever-improving technology, customer loyalty programs are proving extremely popular among retailers—but merchants are not getting all they should out of them. The reason? Professor José Alvarez says retailers need to see customers as partners, not transactions. Key concepts include:
  • Most retailers are at a very basic level in using loyalty programs, and many customers see the programs as punitive.
  • Successful retailers connect with customers via loyalty programs at three levels starting with an introduction, followed by a retailer-initiated communication, and finally with customer- or retailer-initiated feedback loops.
  • Retailers should ask themselves, How do I create a partnership with the consumer?
  • Data collected from these programs can help merchants make smarter decisions on everything from where to open a new store to pulling the plug on a fading brand.
by Maggie Starvish

The customer rewards cards that clutter wallets and clog key chains of many a shopper may soon be no more, as retailers move from physical to digital (read: mobile apps) forms of loyalty program member identification. It's a smart decision. Unfortunately, it's one of the only smart decisions retailers are making when it comes to customer loyalty schemes.

“Loyalty schemes are not being used to their best advantage”

"Most retailers are at a very basic level in how they use loyalty programs, and many customers see loyalty programs as punitive," says Harvard Business School senior lecturer José Alvarez. "Loyalty schemes are not being used to their best advantage."

Fortunately, there's hope. Retailers that do rewards programs right can see "incredible loyalty," says Alvarez.

In the case note Customer Loyalty Schemes in the Retail Sector, Alvarez and coauthor Aldo Sesia, a research associate at HBS, discuss how loyalty schemes evolved, what they look like today, why so many retailers aren't using them effectively, and how they can be improved to win customer business in an uncertain marketplace.

A Brief History

Loyalty programs are a way for the retailer to encourage the continued patronage of customers. They allow retailers to gather data on customer behavior in order to decipher trends, appropriately reward loyalty, and influence shopping behavior. Loyalty schemes take many forms; some of the most common include rewards cards, such as CVS's ExtraCare, and pay-for-membership cards for stores including Costco.

In a very basic form loyalty schemes have been around for as long as people have been exchanging goods—consider the farmer who threw in an extra ear of corn for his best customers. The S&H Green Stamps program, launched in the late 19th century, took the idea a step further, rewarding customers with stamps that could be traded in for a variety of items. American Airlines introduced the next evolution of the customer loyalty program in 1981: the frequent-flier mile program.

The modern-day rewards program started in the 1990s, explain Alvarez and Sesia, in response to a few key issues: the rise of self-service in retail, which led to a weakening of face-to-face connections with customers; the increased commoditization of the retail experience; and "massive improvement" in all facets of data management.

Renewing Loyalty In Retail

Self-service retail, which started with customers selecting their own merchandise in the 1930s and evolved to modern conveniences including self-checkout lanes, has saved businesses labor costs and customers time. But Alvarez thinks the loss of face-to-face interactions between merchant and shopper has left a lot of customers wandering the desert. Well-run loyalty schemes are a way to bring them back into the fold.

Such programs can also help remedy the commoditization that has occurred in the retail sector on many levels. Both the Internet and what the researchers call a "massive availability of real estate" have made location differentiation a moot point. Retailers looking to differentiate on selection have fared no better, considering that the latest Coach bag can be found at Macy's, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, the Coach outlet store, and, most importantly, on a panoply of Internet sites. It's just as hard to differentiate on price, for similar reasons: any consumer with an Internet connection can quickly determine if that flat-screen TV that Walmart claims is at a blowout price actually is. Loyalty schemes offer retailers a way to stand out from an ever-growing crowd.

Technology is also a helpful factor in rewards programs, representing a vast improvement over an old, markedly creepier, and now mostly illegal strategy: dispatching an employee to the parking lot to write down license plate numbers, which then could be cross-referenced with addresses at motor vehicles registries. In the digital era, retailers have myriad ways to collect, store, and slice-and-dice customer data. "The more information you can get and the better you can deal with it, the better you can become at providing services for the customer," says Alvarez.

Engaging The Customer

The most important component by far is customer engagement. "Retailers should ask themselves, 'how do I create a partnership with the consumer?' instead of pulling one over on them," says Alvarez. Many customers see loyalty programs as a way of being ambushed by the retailer.

Successful retailers connect with customers via loyalty programs at three levels. The first is an introduction of sorts: the customer receives a generic reward for enrolling in the program. At the second level, the retailer contacts the customer directly, often via e-mail, to offer a reward more tailored to the customer's wants and needs. Two-way communication occurs at the third level with customer- or retailer-initiated feedback loops.

“I think Nordstrom is a great example of a retailer that's doing it well”

Alvarez has had hands-on experience with the third level of communication when he was president and CEO of grocery chain Stop & Shop. In 2007, certain brands of pet food manufactured in China and sold at several locations were found to be contaminated with melamine. Many pets became sick, and some even died. Through it rewards program data, Stop & Shop was able to identify and contact those rewards customers who had purchased the tainted pet food.

Loyalty program data can be enormously advantageous in other ways, such as helping a retailer perform market research, set pricing strategies, and decide whether and where to open new stores. "Retailers can get a better understanding about what brands matter to consumers," says Alvarez. "So if consumers are switching brands, or buying based on promotions, you can…drive the customer to your own label."

Brand-based data can also be used as leverage in retailer-manufacturer relationships. "If customers don't have brand loyalty, you can push back against manufacturers and tell them you won't carry their products anymore if they raise prices."

Customer Care

An increasing number of retailers are implementing customer loyalty programs, but quantity doesn't equal quality. Most programs are failing, and the numbers bear this out. Less than half of loyalty memberships across all US sectors are in active use. This is due to multiple problems, including privacy concerns and poor ease of use, but Alvarez argues the main issue is the lack of concern retailers have for their customers.

"Most retailers are concerned only about what's best for them," says Alvarez. "But the customer doesn't care that you have to stock a shelf." Merchants need to move beyond thinking of a customer as a transaction and instead create a much more engaging experience.

"This is the one place where retailers will have an advantage—the experience with the customer," Alvarez continues. "It won't be price, selection, or convenience. The only thing that will matter is how a retailer can better understand and best serve the needs of the customer. This includes understanding the intentions of the customer."

Retailers that deploy effective loyalty schemes do just that. "I think Nordstrom is a great example of a retailer that's doing it well," says Alvarez. "Nordstrom looks at the rewards program from the perspective of how can we be a better agent for the consumer." The Personal Book software program is one tool that helps Nordstrom's sales staff do this. In it, they can record personal information about their customers, including size and color preferences, birthdays and anniversaries, and other information that can be accessed at a moment's notice.

Nordstrom's "Fashion Rewards" program is another tool. The program offers customers who make purchases on a store-branded card significant benefits: When the "rewards points" a customer accrues for each dollar spent in-store reaches 2,000, Nordstrom automatically mails the customer $20 in "Nordstrom Notes" that can be applied to future purchases. Depending on how much they spend annually, Fashion Rewards members also have access to perks such as concierge service and free alterations.

A well-run customer loyalty scheme can benefit all types of businesses. CVS and other retailers are experimenting with offering rewards program members discounts on gasoline, for instance. And Stop & Shop recently rolled out Scan It! Mobile, an app that turns a customer's iPhone into a mobile scanner and checkout.

"We're at a place where technologies allow for retailers to have two-way, back-and-forth interactions with customers," says Alvarez. "With smartphones, you have location-based information, so you can communicate with customers where they actually are."

Successful loyalty schemes require advanced technology—and age-old techniques. "It's about going back to the basic roots and origins of retailing," says Alvarez.

"Talk to the customer, listen, find out what they want, and get it for them.

"When you combine this with a keen understanding of trends in the marketplace you can pleasantly surprise customers with goods and services that they may not have known existed. A great retailer is the agent for the customer. Loyalty programs and the insight and communication capabilities they provide can help retailers achieve greatness in a crowded and commoditized space."

About the Author

Maggie Starvish is a writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts.
    • Doug Crice
    • Consumer
    I hate these programs. Everyone from K-mart to CVC to Safeway has one of these programs. If you join all of them, you have a wallet full of cards. And, if everybody has one, then prices will increase to cover the costs of the discounts (like pizza coupons, nobody pays retail for pizza, so prices inflate to cover the amount of the discount). Thus, if I refuse to carry a pocket full of cards, I get to pay more. Please just give me the discount.
    • Phillip Le
    • Realtors
    amazon provided a very good customer incentive program as well.
    • Vivek Seth
    • Consultant, Cognizant
    As far as I see it, there are 3 major challenges facing the retailers, wrt Customer Loyalty programs.
    1. Making sense of the data that comes from totally diverse sources, for example the POS data, Customer loyalty data, demographics, syndicated sources etc.
    2. Having the analytical capabilities to juxtapose these different sources and derive some insights from these
    3. Making these relevant to the times, with the advent of new digital/mobile media, social networking sites, collaboration technologies.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    In these days of cut-throat competition, customer loyalty programmes would take the gullible for a ride. In my view, a customer pays for quality and value. With so many alternatives available, repeatedly rushing to the one with whom loyalty may be psychologically attached may not be prudent for the customer as such a seller can even dupe by showing something which has better alternatives elsewhere simply via the lure of rewards which may not have matching benefits. Hence, one has to be careful and not be straightway attracted by the rewards only. Each outlet needs to be examined on its overall merits.
    • David McKnight
    Doug, you're right about price inflation; no marketing program is free. The same is true for coupons. If you aren't using them, you are underwriting the cost for the person who does -- and when my wife makes it through the check out after saving 50% on the grocery bill, I'm pleased she cuts coupons.

    The reality is that price negotiation (through coupons or loyalty programs) is part of that conversation between customer and retail operator. You get the discount (something you want) in exchange for providing something the retailer or product manufacturer wants (sales of specific items or repeat visits). And the retailer attempts to make membership in the loyalty program something really worth your while.

    Of course, there is an option to carrying a pocketful of cards (which I also refuse to do -- especially to places I seldom personally frequent, even as my wife does). Most of these systems allow you to key in your phone number to accomplish the same thing.

    The balancing act is the retailer must make sure they provide a solid benefit, making you want to be a part of the program. If they don't, they push you away to another store that gives you the experience you want (assuming you can find one).
    • ron randolph-wall
    • CEO, Quantum Loyalty Solutions
    I created and built the world's first co-brand credit card program for General Motors in 1985, the world's largest coalition program for Garanti Bank in Turkey and about 50 other loyalty programs so I am very familar with almost all types of solutions that are out there.

    Most companies fail in their loyalty efforts because they cost more to run than the measurable incremental revenue generated (usually there is a high degree of existing customer subsidization involved).

    An example would be all of the airlines, hotel and car companies. They are locked into a rewards scheme (because everyone in their catagories are doing them) and with zip chance of attracting a new customer. Consumers are smart and they belong to all of the programs in the market place. Hence, these loyalty programs became a big way for companies to spend money against an exisiting user.

    Coalition programs at least offer particpants a chance of bringing in new customers.
    • Dheeraj
    • Founder, Director, Marketspade
    The key phrase here is 'customer engagement'. This is where most businesses / retailers ought to direct their focus.

    Does a bookstore sales person engage you in a discussion about the kind of books or magazines you like to read? If she does so, how effectively is this information communicated to the supply side of her business? How much weight do you attach to her suggestions?

    Customers would be loyal if they are helped while purchasing an item that makes them feel better off or that really saves them money. Inter alia, this calls for knowledgeable sales personnel who have honed the gift of connecting with most customers.

    A perspective on the hospitality industry, specialty stores (sports goods, interior design, art and craft, gourmet foods etc.), jewels and fashion accessories, luxury cars and a few more should add an interesting dimension to this article and Prof. Alvarez's research.
    • Herveline Denis
    • Communication Manager, Loyalty Expert
    I totally agree with your article and most of the comments. A loyalty program shouldn't only confine to a simple communication tool, aimed at animating a database of client. As you correctly point out, those programs are doomed to failure. A loyalty program should really be considered as a sales generator and therefore, it deserves to be thought and driven strategically.
    One other point I totally agree with is the importance of data. It's not only important, it's a prerequisite. At Loyalty Expert, the French marketing agency I work for, we don't only have marketing experts. We also have 25 data experts working daily together with our marketers... This synergy of different skills, combined with One-to-Me communication technologies, enables us to decline our clients sales and marketing policy in a unique and scientific fashion, for each client. It's no more a matter of level because each and every client of the loyalty program is being targeted personally. Each campaign (print or web) is designed for him/her : the graphic design varies from a person to another and most of all, products and promotions totally match to each person need. No one can get the same campaign, each client is unique.
    As you can gess, we get really high return on investment and our clients are really satisfied ! Since the creation of Loyalty Expert back in 2004, we have quickly grown to 70 people today... making us the French leader in the BtoB market!
    • Anonymous
    Wonderful article. Loyalty program have evolved various steps ahead to now expanding its approach and reach by the help of various mobile loyalty and mobile coupons which attracts customers.
    • Anonymous
    customer loyalty programs are wonderful! i love to get free food
    • Anonymous
    I work in a company that provides internet services. We face significant churn of users (lets say 10% annually), and it is really hard to come up with a loyalty program that would make sense financially. If we gave discounts to all, i.e. including these 90% of customers that remain with the company anyways, that would erode the margins and it is questionable what effect to the churn prevention this measure would have. Raising speeds is not possible with the network we have. It is almost impossible to predict who intends to drop the service for a selective approach. Sometimes it is really hard to find an appropriate loyalty program. But they are important for sure.
    • James
    • Consultant, Mloyal
    A mobile loyalty program to be effective has to fill the chinks in the armor. Advanced technology is definitely an area that most of the loyalty programs fail to address.

    Getting the pulse of the consumer will involve a meaningful yet subtle engagement and ever-expanding mobile user base will certainly help.

    Thanks for sharing.

    James O
    • Roger T
    • Marketing Manager, retail
    Have you seen the software from Linque Marketing? They do a really cool job of analyzing the data collected from the loyalty programs so the retailers can actually act on it. I think all too often they collect a bunch of data and then don't know how to act on it. So it just becomes an expensive progam. check it out
    • Anonymous
    Cinco Squared has a real unique web-based customer loyalty program. Businesses can configure a branded customer loyalty program in minutes. The random prize selection really sets this program apart from traditional cards with a point system. This video on YouTube gives an overview:
    • Anonymous
    Check out It is social commerce, branding, cause marketing, loyalty and referral programs wrapped in one. We just started using it and the results are very encouraging.
    • Anonymous
    Great article and very timely. I believe we are in the midst of an overhaul of the Rewards industry. New technologies, access channels, lower cost structures are creating the perfect opportunity to innovate and reinvent rewards across most industries. While fundamentals are the same, companies such as are making it possible for any business to offer a loyalty reward program. This hasn't been possible in the past.
    • Oscar Olmedo
    • Estudiante, Universidad de Guadalajara
    Apply a loyalty program is essential for the conservation of customers and these customers serve as a backup for any situation possible.

    I believe that implementing a loyalty program, not just give something back to stay, but to offer something more than the question material, must support any type, one-way process of communication, in a matter of financial support, provide quality products, prices remain stable and if the price changes justify and inform the cause of increased ect.
    This series of practices succeed in obtaining a consistent remained more customers because they will feel part of the organization.
    • Dave Gee
    • Adjunct Professor of Marketing, University of Wisconsin-Madison
    As an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and CEO of Bungee Loyalty Programs I would like to comment.

    Loyalty Programs Strategies have evolved significantly since inception as has the rationale for implementing and maintaining loyalty programs.

    We have seen Loyalty Program Implementation Rationale and Maintenance has evolved as follows:

    1) Brand differentiator
    2) Churn (customer turnover) reduction system
    3) Customer Lifecycle Management
    4) Data Mining and Marketing ROI

    Dave Gee
    Adjunct Professor of Marketing - UW-Madison
    CEO - Bungee Loyalty Programs