It’s All in the Cards

Back in the Boy Scouts, my troop-mates and I memorized statements designed to make us better young men. The Boy Scout motto was, “Be Prepared”. The Scout slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily” (help others). The Scout oath – several sentences stated with a raised right hand (fingers forming the Scout sign) – included obedience to the twelve points of the Scout law. Recently I’ve been thinking about Point #2 of the Scout law, Loyalty; showing care for family, friends, and country.  But what about care for merchants?

Customer loyalty programs – those structured marketing ploys designed to tempt continued shopping at particular businesses – are standard retail procedure these days.  The use of plastic and punch cards, account numbers, or scanned apps is as common as pulling out your Visa.  I get suspicious when a merchant doesn’t have a loyalty program.  It’s all about the points, and the allure of discounts or freebies through accumulated spending.

American Airlines, credited with starting the first full-scale customer loyalty program in modern times (1981), had no idea its “frequent fliers” would become the trendsetters for countless programs to follow.  But the drive for customer loyalty started way before AA.  Anyone who remembers pasting S&H Green Stamps into collection books, clipping Betty Crocker coupons straight from the product box, fishing prizes from Cracker Jack caramel corn, or joining the Columbia House Record Club (“8 CD’s for a penny!”) has dipped their toe into the customer loyalty pool before.

I took a quick inventory of my own customer loyalty and the numbers surprised me.  I carry eight cards in my car.  I have another eleven apps on my phone and another ten on-line accounts.  That’s 29 unique programs, and over 30 if I include the couple of credit cards where my swipes eventually equal cash back.  For someone who rarely shops on impulse, that’s more attention to spending than I’d care to admit.

If I did a little spring cleaning, I’d likely reduce my loyalty programs by one-third.  Many sit gathering dust because I haven’t used the merchant or service in years.  Others accumulate points at a snail’s pace.  Fill my inbox with special sales alerts or saturate my voice mails with pleas to “buy now!”; it won’t matter.  I purchase on my own terms.

Here are two recent loyalty experiences; the reasons I chose this topic today.  Last September we took a weekend trip to Aspen, settling for a Westin hotel in nearby Snowmass (Aspen is over-the-top expensive to us commoners).  When I went to Westin’s website for the booking, I discovered their loyalty program (Starwood) was merging with Marriott Rewards (now Marriott Bonvoy).  Hallelujah – my Aspen getaway gets me points! But not so fast.  Logging into Marriott Rewards, the home page alerted me to the fact the program merge was still in progress, and a Westin stay might not result in Marriott points.  Long story short, I called the hotel, spoke to the front desk, and had them book the reservation for me instead.  Yep, you can still do it the old-fashioned way.  And you still get points.

My other recent loyalty experience involved Nicholas Mosse Pottery (Kilkenny, Ireland).  Mosse makes beautiful handmade plates and bowls and the like, and we’ve been collecting a few pieces at a time since visiting Ireland a few years ago.  Points for me (ha) for joining the Mosse loyalty program from the get-go.  Just this week they alerted me me to my quietly-amassed rewards.  I then purchased a $70 plate for virtually nothing.

My Mosse experience is the perfect example of my casual approach to customer loyalty.  I don’t keep track of points until they equate to something significant.  Sure, I favor certain products and services, but I’d still favor Marriott or Starbucks or Costco without their loyalty programs.  For someone who tracks every penny, there’s something very satisfying in the surprise of unexpected discounts.  That’s how it works best for me.

Here’s my advice.  Don’t let customer loyalty programs drive your spending habits.  If you do, the merchant “wins”, because you’re likely spending more along the way than whatever discount or freebie you end up getting.  Loyalty = showing care; yes, but with retail that should only mean preferring one store over another.  Despite what they’d have you believe, it’s not all in the cards.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from the Wall Street Journal article, “Inside the Marriott-Starwood Loyalty Program Turbulence”.

Bad Check

Last week I flew to Indiana for a conference, connecting briefly through Chicago O’Hare.  After finally touching down and exiting the tiny plane, I noticed a cluster of passengers right there in the jet bridge, waiting for luggage to be brought up the stairs.  I headed to the baggage claim area instead, where the rest of us watched the carousel lumber round and round.  The minutes passed interminably as the belt continued its relentless rotation; passengers leaving one-by-one with their bags.  Suddenly everything came to a grinding halt, and the carousel let out its big, mechanical sigh.  I found myself in the quiet and solitary confinement of an empty claim area.  My luggage?  Nowhere to be found.

The airlines advertise a ton of performance statistics, but here’s a new one on me: rate of mishandled bags.  For every passenger who files a lost-luggage report, the carrier gets a ding.  That ding is well-deserved, representing the stress of lost luggage, the hassle of filing a report in one of those stuffy little offices, and the inevitable delay reuniting with your bag.  Not that it happens very often.  According to the following chart – part of a Wall Street Journal article – American Airlines reports a mere 2.8 incidents of lost luggage per 1,000 passengers.  But hold the phone, folks – there’s more to the losing than meets the eye.  Turns out American (and most other airlines) avoid a lost-luggage ding if they alert you to the “mishandled” bag.  Today’s smart tags make it easy to track the bag (even if it’s heading in a different direction than you are).  So that bit of information – proactively communicated in a text or email – avoids a bad stat.  And that’s why the chart below shows a dramatic improvement in August.  American Airlines started its proactive notification process the month prior.

I don’t choose my airline according to “rate of mishandled bags” (or any other statistic for that matter – it’s all about the ticket price), but I have observed the adjusted behavior of others.  Carry-on baggage is all the rage now, in brand-new shapes and sizes.  Look around next time you board a plane and count how many passengers violate the airline’s carry-on policy.  The person with the roll-y suitcase and oversized backpack is probably one bag over the limit.  The person with the valise slightly larger than the space “under the seat in front of you” probably should’ve checked it.  But chances are the flight attendant won’t make a fuss, at the risk of negative publicity.

Speaking of backpacks, the oversized versions seem to be all the rage these days; far surpassing the number of “wheelies” and “over-the-shoulder’s” so common with past generations.  It’s like everyone’s back in high school again.

Here’s another trend.  Passengers carry-on instead of checking, knowing there isn’t enough room in the overhead bins.  Once the bins are full, they surrender their bags at the end of the jet bridge instead, for attendants to tromp down the stairs and into the belly of the plane.  After landing, the process works in reverse (thus the cluster of passengers on my recent flight).  But credit to these travel warriors; they avoid $50 of baggage fees, as well as smashing bags into overhead bins (which always brings to mind square pegs and round holes).

One more trend.  Airlines are shifting the baggage-check process into the hands of travelers.  At self-check-in, the kiosk now dispenses a bag tag along with the boarding pass.  You attach the tag to the bag.  You haul the bag to the belt, where – in some cases – you place the bag on the belt.  Congratulations – you’re an airline employee working free of charge.  You might even be helping the airline avoid a mishandled bag stat.

My own lost-luggage story had a happier-than-expected ending.  At the baggage service office, the attendant took my tag into the back, reappearing moments later with my bag.  Turns out my suitcase flew on another plane, arriving at my same destination before I did (explain that bit of magic, please).  Crisis averted, but instead I lost my excuse to go purchase a suitcase of new clothes.