All that is good and maybe not so golden about loyalty cards

Pricewatch: Many cards quietly rack up information on you like where you live, what credit cards you use and how much you are likely to drink next weekend

Every time Pricewatch goes into Boots we do the same stupid dance.

“Have you got a Boots card?,” asks the person at the till as we present ourselves before them laden down with a basket full of things we only half remember getting — large pharmacy chains tend to have a stupefying effect on Popes.

Pricewatch pats itself down, as if looking for the card when, in truth, we know we don’t have one. We admit we have no loyalty to Boots and are handed and accept the form to get the card as it is explained to us that if we hang on to our receipt for this purchase we will be able to have the points attached to the card at some future point.

We take the form and promise to keep the receipt in a safe place until we can sign up and we leave. Weeks pass and we find the application form and the receipt in a pocket and throw it — with a degree of shame — into the recycling bin. The next time we are in Boots it happens again.


Many loyalty cards quietly collect information about your shopping habits

We do a variation of the dance in Tesco when asked if we have a loyalty card. On these occasions the pat down is genuine. We do have a Tesco card tucked into our wallet but in an era when almost all transactions are conducted with a smartphone, more often than not we don’t have our wallet so don’t have the loyalty card about our person. And yes, we know there is an app for that.

There’s an app for the fairly new Marks & Spencer Sparks Card too but we don’t have that either but we do have the Lidl app — or at least a shadow version of it and a Lidl checkout, where there is absolutely no time to waste, so frenzied is the packing, is no time to reinstall it.

Pricewatch has no moral objection to loyalty schemes. We are not overly concerned if some class of souped up computer in Cheltenham is poring over our till receipts trying to make sense of our purchase of meat-free mince and meaty mince and alcohol-free white wine and brandy — let the computers have their fun.

Quite apart from anything else, we can’t help but think that anyone who has a presence on social media, shops on Amazon, searches on Google and has willingly installed at several listening devices in the home has no business being bothered if Mr Tesco knows what kind of yoghurt we like — Glenisk Coconut and Vanilla in case you’re wondering.

We simply don’t have any loyalty cards because we are just useless at managing them for our benefit, our wallet is small and our memory vague.

Retailers know that we are habitual creatures who buy the same tea, milk, breakfast cereal, shaving gel and all the rest because we know what we like and it is easier that way

While we might not remember to sign up to the Ikea family card or the Boots card we do — weirdly — remember when loyalty schemes came to town. We can thank Superquinn for them. It was one of the first supermarkets in Europe to launch a loyalty scheme 30 years ago after which Tesco rolled out its own scheme here in the late 1990s followed soon after by Dunnes. And then Superquinn. They have been joined by bookshops, coffee shops, off-licences and department stores and a whole lot more.

Many such cards quietly collect information about your shopping habits. Your favourite supermarket probably knows what you buy and when you buy it. It knows how old you are, your marital status and how many children you have, if any.

It knows where you live, what credit cards you use and how much you are likely to drink next weekend. It also knows many of the most intimate details of your personal care routine and could — if it cared to — probably hazard a pretty decent guess as to how often you use the bathroom.

But what business is it of theirs and what can a shop do with all the information it has?

Well, if it is clever, it can use the data to target us with things it thinks we might like at moments we might like them.

Retailers know that we are habitual creatures who buy the same tea, milk, breakfast cereal, shaving gel and all the rest because we know what we like and it is easier that way. There are very few points in a person’s life when habits shift. When you first leave home or when you move in with a partner are two such points.

In the 1980s, Alan Andreasen, a UCLA professor at the time, started looking at the purchases people made focusing on the basics found in most shopping trolleys and among his findings were the fact that after people get married, they are more likely to buy a different brand of coffee. When a couple moves into a new house, they are more inclined to buy a different kind of breakfast cereal. When a couple divorces, they are most likely to switch beer allegiances.

What he was seeking were those moments when people are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers” so shoppers could be nudged in a certain way at a certain time.

One of the biggest moments is when a child is born and parents need all sorts of new things, many of which they will keep buying for years.

Now is as good a time as any to bring Andrew Pole, into the picture. He was an analyst with Target, the US retailing giant and in that role he was asked use the data collected by the retail giant’s store card to work out when women were pregnant. The thinking was if the store could attract the attention of women in their second trimester they would become loyal customers.

He worked out that a woman who suddenly starts buying unscented body lotions or supplements such as calcium, magnesium and zinc was most likely pregnant and then he drew up a list of 25 products which, if bought in certain amounts and in a certain sequence, could tell Target if a shopper was pregnant and even when her due date was. Then Target could target these women with special offers on the products in knew they would be looking for.

So far so scary, right. It gets worse. In his book, The Power of Habit, US journalist Charles Duhigg tells the story of Andrew Pole and the connected story of a man who went into a branch of Target near Minneapolis demanding to know why his high school-going daughter was suddenly getting coupons for baby clothes and cribs. It subsequently emerged that his daughter was pregnant and the first people to know about it were Target.

It is an extreme example of what the data gathered by loyalty cards can do although it is worth bearing in mind the story is more than a decade old and with the mind-boggling advances in technology since then and the massive shift towards, ecommerce, it is a story that most likely seems quaint to the number crunchers and data munchers behind the most advanced loyalty cards in the world today.

What loyalty? Just some of the cards out there and what they can do for you

1. Boots Advantage Card: With this card you will get four points for every €1 spent. There are also substantial discounts on a range of products for card holders and bonus points available when buying certain products. And, yes, Pricewatch has now signed up for the app which means we don’t even need the card.

2. Brown Thomas/Arnotts: The sister stores have separate cards but either one can be used in both shops. You get a point for every €1 you spend and every point is worth a cent, unless you buy from the “sustainable edit” range in which case you get two points for every euro spent. You also get triple points for the 15 days around your birthday as well as invites to “cardholder shopping days”. We also like how, once registered, you can get your points by giving your mobile number and — as is increasingly the way — there is an app for that too.

3. Coffee cards: Coffee chains are where loyalty schemes are 10 a penny but not all cards are equal. For every €1 you spend in Starbucks, you get three stars. When you have 150 stars — or spent €50 — you get a free drink. If you get to 450 stars you qualify for a birthday drink. Butlers have what to us looks like a better card — it is certainly simpler. Every tenth drink is free. People who sign up for the Insomnia card also get their tenth drink on the house as well as “birthday treats”. Then you have the Subway card which gets registered members one point for every 15 cent spent. You get double points for the first 28 days of your membership as well as a 250 signing on bonus. You can get a regular drink with 100 points and a sandwich for 500 points. So outside of the introductory period if you get 10 points for every €1.50 you spend, if you spend €150 you will get yourself a free lunch.

4. TK Maxx Treasures: “It’s unique and surprising, like us. It’s not money off, it’s not points, it’s not what anyone else does. It’s all about rewarding our special customers who love TK Maxx and Homesense as much as we do.” At least that is what TK Maxx says. We say it is just a little confusing. You collect keys to buy experiences but the site then says you can’t use the keys online because you are based in the Republic of Ireland and not the UK and, well by this point we had moved on.

5. Ikea Family card: You won’t get points but you will get a free cuppa if you visit during the week as well as damage cover if something breaks while you are bringing it home or assembling it — this does not extend to a heart broken while trying to follow incomprehensible instructions. Card holders can also avail of special discounts and get invites to workshops and the like.

6. Dunnes Stores Value Card: With this you get one point for every €1 you spend with each point worth a single cent. Once at least 200 points are earned on the card within a specified collection period, you will receive vouchers sent to customers each Spring, Summer and Christmas. Dunnes also offers money-off vouchers to grocery shoppers on the end of their receipts without any need to sign up to a card.

7. Tesco’s Club Card: You get one point for every €1 you spend, and once you have a certain number of points accumulated — in this case 150 — you will get vouchers. Then there is the Boost which allows you to increase the value of your voucher by as much as 300 per cent if you spend it with the supermarket’s partners. So €5 worth of vouchers will get you an adult ticket to an Odeon cinema while €9 in vouchers will cover a three month subscription to Disney Plus which normally costs €8.99 a month. In recent months Tesco has been limiting many of its discounts to clubcard members only which makes it a whole lot more attractive.

8. SuperValu Real Rewards: This scheme has recently been overhauled and according to the website members can expect “weekly savings with new app vouchers and coupons ... a new Scan to Win monthly prize draw, for a chance to win prizes in your local SuperValu ... [and] extra savings in the ‘Deals’ section of the app.” No sign of the cash vouchers of times past mind you.

9. Lidl Plus: No vouchers here either but certain products are discounted for loyalty scheme members.

10. Marks & Spencer Sparks Card: No money back vocuers but you will get “personalised offers on the things you love” as well as the chance to win your week’s shopping for free, the chance of a “little gift” as you shop and you can donate to a charity of your choice each time you scan the card.

What do you think of loyalty cards and do you have any favourites?

From odd visits to Roly’s restaurant/cafe plus picking up their excellent takeaway meals now and again, I discovered I have €60 to spend there! Plus always good to be told by Dubray Books or Eason that you have a few bob off your purchase. — Tony O’Brien

I refuse to have a store loyalty card as I know what people are giving away for so little return. I am berated on a weekly basis at the till for choosing not to have one. — Trish Minton

I’m in Supervalu more than anywhere else cos proximity, but theirs isn’t wonderful now. Used to get the occasional hotel break on the Tesco clubcard.

The Boots one is my favourite. No messing, most user-friendly system. — Rachel Walsh

Super dodgy way to collect data. — Helen Walsh

Tesco removing promos from the general public and requiring you to have a clubcard to avail of them was a massive blow to my shopping bill. I caved and got the clubcard. They did this in the UK a year previously and didn’t lose market share. — Louise Walsh

M&S sparks card v clever as they give you free things you can pick up in store that day ... last week a tub of coleslaw ... delighted!!.the instant gratification a total winner & instant forgiveness for some items at high price (they have a v good value range too). — Mary McCarthy

M&S have managed to buy my soul by handing me the occasional free croissant. — Chrissie Russell

We offer a loyalty card and collect zero data! It simply rewards loyalty, but then probably typical of local independent uncynical schemes. — Hederman Smoked Salmon

Nolan’s, Clontarf. Cumulative benefit. I cash it in against the Christmas shop which is handy. — Rita Larkin

I love them! From Boots points to Avois points I have got a lot from them knowing that a middle-aged man likes super noodles and chocolate biscuits! Have stopped using the SuperValu one as the new scheme is terrible! — Mark Kinsella

Boots is my FAVE. Espesh handy when I’m in a pinch, get them on my points that have built up. Also Eason has a good loyalty scheme if you’re an avid reader. Points build up, book cost can be covered in full from time to time. Nice little reward.

Lidl, yes. But I scratch my head wondering why they require my full name, date of birth, full home address, eircode, phone number (email I can understand), and other details. Still ... 50 per cent off spinach, I’ll trade. — Tom Denning

My points with boots translate to actual money off, I’ll be at the till buying something (usually small like nail polish) and they’ll tell me I’ve enough points on my card to cover the cost in full, happens twice a year maybe but keeps me happy enough to keep sharing my data. — Louise McGlynn

Boots! Spend a euro, get a cent back, spend them on anything you want. It’s simple, clear, and no trying to get you to spend more, or spend on particular items. — Dr Panti Bliss Cabrera

They are data vampires and the way offers are constructed they disproportionately affect people less well off who are forced to trade personal data for the lower prices. The poverty of privacy. This data can be resold to others. — Brian Daly