New loyalty rewards programs are both a blessing and curse to shoppers

loyalty programs take new shapeThose traditional rewards programs, where you receive a gift or discount once you've spent a certain amount of money? That's so 20th century. Now that companies are armed with almost limitless computer processing power and databases full of individual spending histories, it should come as no surprise that loyalty programs have taken on a profusion of new forms -- and many of them will save you money, if you're shrewd enough to play them properly.

Those computers and discounts can, however exact a long-term cost. The more we allow ourselves to be manipulated by special offers, and the more data we provide to companies about our shopping decision-making, the more able those companies will become to charge each individual the absolute maximum price that he/she will be willing to pay. Say goodbye to the standard shelf price and hello to individual pricing.

What are these new kinds of programs? Suppose you:

Check in to your favorite social media. Follow your favorite fast food joint on Twitter and you might find a coupon in a tweet. Browse your Facebook account and you might find that companies you like are liking you back with special deals. Report in to Foursquare from your favorite store often enough and you might earn a reward or discount.

Tasti D-lite for example, allows customers to tie their Twitter or Foursquare accounts to the company's TreatCard loyalty program. Every time the customer uses the TreatCard to buy a treat, a Tweet or Foursquare check-in automatically is sent out proclaiming the purchase and the reward points earned. The company in turn grants the customer extra reward points on their TreatCard.

Shop the huge discount stores
. These merchants use those membership cards to track every purchase you make. If they have such a detailed profile of your spending pattern, why would they dish out the same discount offers to every customer? Why not tailor the prices to your individual buying habits? Some do, and most eventually will. Sam's Club's eValues program for example, spits out coupons based on your habits. Many grocery stores also now print out individualized coupons along with your receipt.

Use your cellphone. Combine smart phones with social media and you have the foundation for on-the-fly coupons. According to SmartMoney, the Gap rewards those who check in to the iPhone app Looptstar from its location twice with a 25% off coupon. You can even use your phone as a loyalty card at Starbucks, which will hand you some free java after 15 visits.

Gas up you when you stock up.
Gasoline and groceries have become so intertwined that people like my wife will drive 10 miles out of her way for a fill up, thanks to rewards. Kroger's offers money off of gas purchases as a reward to grocery shoppers. Giant Eagle's foodperks offers money off of groceries when you buy its gas.

Reward good health with better health.
A new Rite Aid program rewards customers for every purchase, including a huge 25 points for prescriptions. The best part, though, is that customers can redeem these points for health screenings as well as store discounts.

The game is complicated, but our video-game obsession has proven that Americans love games. And this one can put real cash in your pocket, if you're willing to give up some of your privacy.
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