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”.

Wee Wardens of Wash

Let’s wage a debate where the arguments “against” easily beat the arguments “for”, but we’re so stubbornly “for” we wage the debate anyway. Sound like politics?  Not today. Race relations? No way, José. Pepsi vs. Coke? Maybe another time. Today we’re putting a much hotter topic on the table: shampoo. More specifically, hotel shampoo.

Last weekend my family and I stayed at a Fairfield Inn – a low-end entrée on the Marriott hotel menu.  Fairfield’s are fine by us – clean and basic overnight accommodations, (with a free breakfast that actually digests).  In this instance, we entered the lobby to the smell of freshly-baked help-yourself chocolate-chip cookies.  That was a nice surprise.  After check-in, we made our way around the corner to the elevators, and on up to our third-floor rooms.

Let’s pause here for a quick survey.  What’s the first thing you do when you enter a hotel room – check out the view?  Channel-surf the TV?  Flop on the bed?  Not me. I head to the bathroom to check out the small “freebies” on the counter.  Chances are I’ll find (at a minimum) soap for the sink, soap for the shower, boxed tissues, makeup-remover wipes, and maybe even a tiny cloth to polish shoes.  Also for the taking: shampoo, conditioner, and body-wash bottles, lined up like little dominoes just waiting to take the plunge into the nearby shower.  But guess what?  Those little soldiers of sanitation are about to go MIA.

In the next few months, according to a Wall Street Journal article, many of America’s hotel bathrooms will drop “little bottles” in favor of shower-wall bulk dispensers.  In today’s environmentally-conscious world, you have to wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner.  Consider the arguments against these little grime-fighting gunners.  They create tons upon tons of plastic waste.  They get thrown away half-full – so effectively waste on top of waste.  The moment you need them is the moment you’re already wet in the shower (and they’re still over on the counter).  Finally, for anyone who requires reading glasses – hello, me – little bottle labels are impossible to decipher while you’re standing under shower spray. Raise your hand if you’ve ever put body wash in your hair.

More arguments against.  Bulk dispensers keep the shampoo in the hotel and the bottles out of the landfills.  They give you as much or as little product as you need.  Bulk dispensers can easily be refilled by housekeeping (though picture the short-straw employee who has to decant the contents of the leftover bottles into the dispensers).  Finally, bulk dispensers eliminate five billion little bottles a year.  Okay, that last argument is pretty much the only one you need.  And yet…

This change brings me pain.  Staying at hotels won’t be the same without my wee wardens of wash.  My singular argument for?  I’m all about personal touch; the little things that make you go, “wow, I feel special”.  Those little heroes of hygiene do that for me.  So do chocolate-chip cookies.

To add fuel to the fire, I expect hotels to eventually remove everything else from the bathroom counter.  You’ll find nothing but a faucet, towels, and TP.  While they’re at it, they’ll eliminate the logo pens, the paper pads, the stationery, and even the bedside clock-radio’s.  Cleanse the room of anything moveable.  Why do this?  Because hotels know they can condition you to bring your own stuff.  And before you say, “Dave, that’s a stretch”, consider the airlines.  It wasn’t that long ago the ticket agent checked you in, printed your boarding pass, and slapped the luggage tag on your suitcase.  Pretty soon you’ll be flying the plane.

Truthfully, I can do without my little defenders of disinfection, as long as hotels don’t take away my elbow room.  But that’s already happening, isn’t it? Blame Japan for the “little room” concept.  America is now a breeding ground for “capsule hotels”.  Capsules give you nothing more than a bed-closet and a down-the-hall community bathroom.  They’re described as “cheap, basic, overnight accommodations”.  Wait, wait, wait – isn’t that the same definition I gave our Fairfield Inn?  One of these days someone will say to me, “Wow, the Fairfield. Y’all stay nice.”

In the meantime, rest in peace little marines of clean.  Your work is done.  Time for the big boys to take over.