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Loyalty – Scheme or Sham?

Evolution has deemed that we become creatures of habit. But just because customers are genetically wired for loyalty to the familiar, the retailer should not treat this loyalty with contempt. Or even laziness.

A keystone of a retailer’s business is the loyalty that customers show in shopping at his or her store.

Loyal customers help to sustain a basic level of sales and reduce the need for expensive broadcast-style marketing spending that the store may otherwise have to do in order to keep the traffic and business flowing. This is as true for chain-stores as it is for independent mom-and-pop stores.

Therefore, as competition increases along with the number of stores selling the same products within a common catchment, retaining the loyalty of the customer becomes crucial, both in terms of strength of relationship (which is reflected in how much of the total spend the customer spends at the specific store) as well as the duration of the relationship.

In some parts of the more developed markets regulation may prevent the overcrowding of grocery stores and supermarkets. However, in markets such as India, one can see as many as four or five mini-supermarkets coming up on barely a kilometre along a busy street, before you even count the numerous kiranawalas. How can a store ensure a continued loyal custom from a certain share of that catchment?

Managers at modern chain stores may draw some comfort from studies which suggest that customers with higher incomes tend to be more “loyal” than customers with lower incomes. Since Indian chain stores tend to be targeted on high-income customers when compared to the traditional kiranawala, they may benefit from an intrinsically more loyal base of customers.

The variety of factors behind this “loyalty” may essentially boil down to the fact that with rising incomes the perceived benefit – lower prices, potentially better products or service – from comparing alternative stores may be outweighed by the perceived cost (time) of seeking these options and the personal adjustment involved in shopping in an unfamiliar environment. (Or, perhaps, to put it more bluntly: “rich customers couldn’t be bothered”?)

However, as the number of competing offers increases, promotional noise draws the consumer’s attention to benefits they might be missing out on, whether this is through flyers in the mailbox, kiosks set up near the consumer’s primary store, or even a full-blown ad campaign across multiple media. With every new offer or promotion, there is a temptation to try out an unfamiliar retailer.

This is more acute during recessionary times, when just about every competitor is shouting out deals to lure the customer to at least step into their store. And don’t think that high income customers are immune from the “toothpaste-discount” bait. During such times, whether they acknowledge it or not, everyone is down-shifting. It is at such times that loyalty is truly called upon. And it is also at such times when retailers start to think of loyalty schemes.

Most loyalty schemes are focussed on the objective of retaining existing customers through the use of incentives that are available only to loyalty programme members. They will ask a customer to provide some personal and contact information, and will provide some reference – a set of coupons to be redeemed during future purchases, or a card (index, swipe or smart) – that must be presented during subsequent transactions. In almost all cases, there is an attempt at getting the customer to return to the store because, as we all know, when we step into a store to redeem anything, almost without exception we end up shelling out more money than the redemption is worth. Since the value of the cash-back equivalent can be anywhere between 1 and 10 per cent (sometimes higher) customers are happy with the bribe, while the store is happy to ring up the additional sales.

However, it is surprising – or perhaps not – how many loyalty schemes turn into shams. In many such cases, the true benefits and the liabilities during the life cycle of the loyalty programme or of the customer’s relationship with the store have not been considered deeply enough. We all have multiple examples from our personal lives, which offer valuable lessons on such shambolic “loyalty schemes”. For instance:

Very often we find that a loyalty scheme has been conceived by an executive in charge of advertising to get the message out more cheaply (?) and focussed on a set of frequent customers. There is little link with the other parts of the operation, such as merchandising, store planning, or even promotion management, and certainly no influence. Thus, a second and potentially more powerful objective – using customer shopping data to tighten merchandising and improve the targeting of promotions – is virtually ignored.

Some companies have decided that managing a loyalty programme would offer lower benefits than the cost of maintaining the scheme, and decide to pass on the amount to the consumer directly in the form of lower prices. However, given the times, and the prospective goldmine of consumer purchase information that consumers willingly provide through such transactions (despite all vocal concerns about privacy) I would expect loyalty schemes to mushroom in the next few years.

The fact is, whatever our income levels, evolution has deemed that we become creatures of habit. Once a certain path has been followed successfully, a berry has been eaten safely, a transaction has been made satisfactorily, we are inclined to return to it again and again.

Trust, predictability and precedence are huge factors in developing loyalty, and when translated into the modern life of shopping (especially for food and groceries), this translates into the phenomenon that has been called first store (or primary store) loyalty. This can lead to as much as almost 70 per cent of grocery shopping being carried out at one store. Typically consumers will have a strong secondary store, and the balance grocery shopping would be split between multiple stores based on product availability, convenience and opportunity, deals and other factors.

But just because customers are genetically wired for loyalty to the familiar, the retailer should not treat this loyalty with contempt. Or even laziness. Because that can tip over the loyalty scheme into being a loyalty sham. And that is it only one letter away from “scam” – a dangerous label in these times of the consumer-activist.

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