Store loyalty programs: Discounts can have hidden costs
What good is 20% off something you wouldn't have bought otherwise?
By Susan Ladika
Store loyalty programs can be a great way to save
green, but if not used properly, they could
put your finances in the red.
That 20 percent off coupon from your
favorite clothing store can help you save if you already have a sweater for
Mom on your shopping list. But do you really need that three-tier
scratching post for Fluffy or heated dog bed for Fido just because you can save
$10 on your purchase?
Store loyalty programs can be a double-edged
sword. While they reward regular customers by offering meaty coupons and
discounts, often without charging membership fees or linking rewards to store
credit cards, they also can tempt shoppers to buy things they don't need, simply
to get a good deal.
And reward programs are often tied to how much you
spend, so the more you buy, the bigger the discounts, encouraging you to spend
"Don't take what should be a reward and have it
become a punishment when you get your bill," says Todd Mark, vice president of
education for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas.
A 2008 study by Colloquy, a firm specializing in
loyalty marketing, found there were more than 1.8 billion loyalty program memberships
in the United States, up nearly one-quarter from 2006. That translated to more
than 14 loyalty memberships per household.
Retail loyalty programs accounted for more than
700 million of those memberships. Programs that weren't tied to credit cards
weren't separated out from those that were.
Book stores were, by far, the most popular for their
loyalty programs, with 62 percent of respondents enrolled, a study by First
Data, a technology and payments processing company, found in 2008. For the 500
consumers surveyed, pet store loyalty programs came in second, at 31 percent.
Store loyalty programs appeal to both consumers
and businesses. Shoppers like the discounts, while businesses know it's easier
to keep a customer than attract a new one, Mark says
If you're a fan of a particular store and plan to
shop there anyway, it can be a good move to use store coupons or discount
certificates to reduce costs. On the flip side, Mark says, it could mean
"paying 80 percent for something you had no intention of buying in the first
place. That could equate into expensive debts you didn't budget for."
But there are ways to use the programs
effectively, without running up debt.
buy you love
If you receive a 20 percent off coupon from your
favorite retailer, it can be tempting to run out and buy something for Mom that
normally costs $100, knowing that you'll pay only $80. But if you only had $50 budgeted for her
gift, "don't let it (a discount) enable you to spend beyond your budget," Mark
Deals often get better closer to Christmas Day, as
retailers hope to close out their year with strong sales. So someone who finished
his shopping early might feel the urge to go out and buy more, thinking, "My
kids will love me more," Mark says.
David Jones, president of the Association of
Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, urges consumers to draw up a
holiday shopping list and a budget and "don't veer from it."
If you've planned to spend $50 on a pair
of jeans for your son, and you get a $10 off coupon, rather than spending $40
for the jeans and $10 on something else, Jones recommends sticking that extra
$10 in the bank and using it to pay off the holiday shopping bills when they
Cate Williams, vice president of financial
literacy for Money Management International, says consumers who receive store
rewards should think about how to use the programs for holiday gift giving not
only at Christmas time, but throughout the year.
Williams failed to read the fine print on a
discount from an office supply store and let a $43 reward slip through her
fingers by not redeeming it before it expired. She could have used that money
to buy a nice pen as a Christmas gift. "Then they (discounts) really are found
trash can handy
It's crucial to understand your own shopping
habits. If a coupon is enough to prompt you to run off to your favorite store
to buy something you don't need, don't enroll in store rewards programs, says
Mike Sullivan, director of education at the credit counseling agency Take Charge
"You don't want to be tempted by 10 different
coupons coming in every month," he says. "If you do it (store rewards programs)
correctly, you throw away an awful lot of coupons and an awful lot of
That discount offer in
your mailbox or e-mail in-box may encourage you to buy from your favorite store.
"One of the great dangers is you don't do comparison shopping," Sullivan says.
Without comparing prices,
there's a good chance you'll spend more for the item, just because you want to
buy from the place that sent you the discount.
will it really cost?
If you do use a credit card for your holiday
shopping and carry a balance, you need to be sure to compare the discount you
receive against the APR on the credit card, Mark says. You might be getting a
10 percent discount, but your credit card interest rate might be 15 percent.
If you do charge items, Mark urges consumers to
have a plan in place to pay off balances before tax time. If not, you'll likely
still be paying for your Christmas purchases by the time the next holiday
season rolls around.
Marlene Aborn, of Medford, Mass., has nearly
perfected the art of using store discounts. Five years ago, she'd get a discount
offer in the mail and immediately run out to see if there was anything in the
store she liked.
The self-proclaimed shopping nut says her attitude
has changed, driven by the economy. Now she looks to see if she can use the
discount on sale or clearance items and checks the store's ads to "see where I
can get the most bang for my buck."
For those who can't avoid
the siren song of store loyalty programs, Mark warns that rather than receiving
a reward, you may be rewarding retailers "by spending more than you ever
|STORE LOYALTY PROGRAMS: A SAMPLER
|Retailers often offer enticements to keep customers loyal repeat visitors. Here are a variety of retailers and the goodies they offer.
Get 1 point for every $1 spent in
Best Buy's Reward Zone program. For 250 points, members get a $5 reward
certificate. There are also birthday rewards and members' only special offers
Coupons are sent regularly to
members. Every $150 in annual qualifying purchases earns $5 in Borders Bucks,
as well as a personal shopping day to save 10 percent on almost everything.
After that, it's $5 in Borders Bucks for every $100 in purchases.
|Dick's Sporting Goods
Members earn one ScoreCard Rewards
point for every $1 they spend. Accumulate 300 points and receive a $10 reward
DSW Rewards members earn 10 base
points for every dollar spent on regularly priced merchandise and 5 points for
every dollar spent on clearance items. Receive a $10 certificate after earning
1,500 points. There are also opportunities to earn double points and bonus
In the Eddie Bauer Friends program,
customers earn a 3 percent reward for each dollar spent. They receive a reward
certificate in $5 increments, depending on their reward balance. Reward
certificates are issued every four months.
With the PetPerks program, members receive
a welcome kit with more than $200 in coupons, special pricing on more than
1,000 items each month, and access to private sales.
|Toys R Us, Babies R Us
Rewards R Us members receive $5 in "R Us Dollars" for every $150 in qualifying purchases. The cap is $20 in R Us
Dollars per month. There are also special rewards for diapers, formula,
greeting cards and LeapFrog products.
See related: Home-shopping channel addiction: A fast path to credit card debt, Chart: 2010 holiday credit card and debit card special promotions
Published: December 22, 2010
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