Are You Overdosing On Supermarket Loyalty Cards?

Just about anyone who has been into a chain grocery store in the last decade is familiar with loyalty programs — and the little barcode cards that can quickly clog up your wallet and/or key chain. But one Consumerist reader thinks it’s time for supermarkets to rethink these programs and just pass the savings on to everyone.

“My wife now has loyalty keyfobs on her keyring outnumbering keys almost 2:1,” writes H., who dreads those times when he forgets to bring the stash of cards with him when he makes a grocery run. And since they have so many of these cards, not all of them are correctly tied to his or his wife’s phone number, meaning the cashier can’t look up the cards using that info.

“When I find myself in that state I simply want to pay my ‘just dues’ and buy my stuff and get on with life,” says H.

But he finds that cashiers are not always willing to let him get away without joining the loyalty program.

“The other day as I was checking out at Vons I failed to provide my card,” he writes. “The cashier asked if I had a Vons card. I lied and said ‘No’ (because I simply wanted to go home before the butter melted). She didn’t seem satisfied so she asked ‘Are you on vacation?’ I looked at her and said ‘No.’ She pointed out that she wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing some possibility to save a few extra cents.”

He asks, “Why not just give everyone the discount and dispense with tracking my every move with your card?”

And that’s exactly the point, as a good part of the value of these cards to supermarkets is the ability to track regular shoppers’ habits. They also can lock people into becoming perpetual customers through the use of rewards points. So it’s in a grocery store’s own interest to get these cards in as many customers’ hands as possible.

(On a side note: The CDC has used supermarket loyalty cards to track a salmonella outbreak, while the USPS used them to return someone’s lost keys.)

But the problem happens when every store offers the exact same kind of loyalty programs. It takes away any incentive to shop at any one store, and requires you to make extra room on your key chain.

“The fact that I can have an unlimited collection of ‘loyalty’ cards from every single grocery in this town indicates that it only serves to make sure I’m annoyed when I try to get out of the store without presenting the plastic key to leave,” writes H.

So who can win over these customers who want discounts but don’t want to be overwhelmed with plastic fobs?

“We have found a couple of local smaller chains that don’t bother with the card system,” says H. “I’m growing more fond of them by the day!”

Feel free to use the comments to talk up your favorite — and least favorite — rewards programs, and why they do or don’t work for you.