Are you being rewarded for your loyalty?

If you're like most savvy shoppers out there, you have reward, coupon or other loyalty cards from retailers you frequent regularly (I've got a whole key fob's worth of those little plastic bar-code tags that goes with me when I go shopping). As the recession rolls along, though, many retailers are adjusting their programs in response to decreased consumer spending. This SmartMoney article makes the excellent suggestion to visit the stores or go online and dig up the fine print of the programs in which you participate. You may be getting more -- or less -- than you realized.

Shoppers today want the stores they visit to give them something extra for spending their hard-earned dollars there, so they're gravitating toward loyalty programs in greater numbers than they did during the go-go years. According to Colloquy, a marketing research company, participation in loyalty programs is up by 19% since 2007. Millennials, that marketing-jargon term for the coveted 18-to-25 year-old demographic,ramped up their participation in loyalty programs by a whopping 32% within that time period.

Retailers have been taking different tacks toward their larger member bases, though. While some are making it easier to accrue points and redeem rewards, others are getting stingy, dropping some benefits or making them harder to attain. SmartMoney details several big retailers' program changes, for better or worse. The bulk of them fall into a handful of categories:

Better technology: Stores are wising up to the fact that shoppers' home computers have become an extension of their shopping experience, and are adding digital couponing and savings options. In fact, in this age of online price-comparison and e-commerce outlets competing with brick-and-mortar retailers for business, if a company doesn't make it convenient for you to access your rewards online, are they really serving your needs?

Event access: SmartMoney says offering loyalty members first crack at tickets for outings like games and concerts doesn't cost a retailer much, but shoppers love the idea of exclusive, "concierge" benefits, even though it's kind of a nebulous perk (do you really want to be first on line to give your cash to the local baseball team or the teen crooner du jour?) There's a lesson here. When a retailer or other company offers you something, ask yourself: Who is this really benefiting?

"VIP" programs: Some companies only want to dish out the goodies if you drop big bucks with them. Observe the rise of tiered loyalty plans: big spenders get more generous terms than the rest of us. It's something the airlines have been doing for years -- access to their clubs and primo seats were reserved for the road warriors who logged hundreds of thousands of miles each year -- but now some retailers are getting in on the act, too.

Partner perks: Some companies are waking up to the fact that you shop at numerous places, and are offering discounts, rebates or coupons for purchases of an unrelated nature. For instance, one example cited by SmartMoney lets you earn a discount on gas when you buy coffee and donuts. Fuel for your ride, fuel for you. Now that's a stimulus we can get behind.
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