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Why staying loyal pays off...





Does your wallet bulge with plastic? If not, it should. You don't have to be a megabucks baron to make big savings. We're not talking credit cards here, but loyalty cards - those flexible friends who give you discounts, special offers and points. And we all know points make prizes - at least they do in the big chains that offer them.

Your granny may have been a champion coupon cutter, but it's all high-tech now as retailers line up for your euro and try to keep you loyal to them above all others. The best tip of all is not to be loyal at all - but to become a card tart - and have one for every store you regularly shop in. That way you won't be caught short when one offers better value than another. Keep them all on a dedicated key chain or fob or put them in a card wallet so you can find the one you need at the checkout, irrespective of which store you find yourself in.

But you're giving supermarkets far more than your loyalty when you use one. They're getting a fantastic amount of data on your shopping habits, and given that 90pc of our weekly purchases are exactly the same, we creatures of habit are often the reason retailers change their product offerings, put certain items on promotion, or try to cross sell us different things.

The first retailer to twig the value of loyalty cards here was Superquinn, more than 20 years ago. However, in 1995 UK giant Tesco teamed up with retail consultants DunnHumby to launch their scheme and found sales were up 50pc within five years, by using data to classify customer profiles and improve product targeting. Using RFV technology (Recency, Frequency, Value), analysts 'score' customers on how they shop, what they purchase and how much they spend, using that to target them for other goods and services.

In the United States, retailing giant Target was the, ahem, target of a book by New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, which looked at data collected used to work out when women became pregnant, sometimes before the women themselves knew. "We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there's a good chance we could capture them for years," Target statistician Andrew Pole told the journalist. "As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they're going to start buying everything else too."

He looked at women newly buying items like unscented body lotions, food supplements, folic acid and 25 other products which, when bought in combination in a sequence proved unerringly accurate in predicting pregnancy. They then started sending coupons and vouchers for related products to those customers, sometimes prompting complaints and causing a bit of flak for the chain, but it worked.

Irish stores are a little more subtle, one hopes, but collecting points is every bit as popular now as it was during the height of recession. Most offer one point for every euro spent. It means that your reward is just 1c, but as the average family spends €150 a week on grocery shopping, that adds up to €78 a year in savings - not to be sneezed at!

If you don't want what are euphemistically called 'offers from selected partner companies' but which to many of us are simply spam, under the Data Protection Act you can opt out by ticking the box provided on the card application. Supermarkets, by law, must exclude certain purchases from loyalty card points. These include infant formula, lottery tickets, tobacco and cigarettes, medicines and gift vouchers. Some also exclude call credit, but this is not mandatory, while others won't allow you to use your traded-in vouchers to buy tobacco products.

All stores have a "minimum" spend (anything from 150 to 400 points) before they'll issue your points statement. Forgotten your card? Don't worry - stores will all validate receipts at a later date. With Boots it's up to 45 days, but Dunnes Stores only 14.

The best value supermarket loyalty card is from Tesco simply because it's most versatile. Points can be used for money back vouchers, discounts off day trips and hotels, and it includes petrol and call credit purchases too. The best overall value must be Boots though, as you not only get four points for every euro spent, but there are almost constant "Three for Two" promotions and direct money-off vouchers for their No. 7 range of cosmetics. Nicely, staff are also encouraged to 'split' your purchases so that you benefit from vouchers, perhaps in two separate transactions.

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Coffee houses offer the poorest value, with Starbucks getting the thumbs down. It only awards one "star" per transaction, and you need 15 stars just to get a free coffee. On the upside, if you're a member you can get free shots and syrups by pre-loading your card and using it to pay.