Insider Tips: The Best Loyalty Programs for Your Buck

My key chain is heavy with rewards memberships and my inbox is perpetually overloaded with “exclusive” and “members only” offers. I'm not a dedicated “couponer,” per se, but I do love a good deal.

Yet, off the top of my head, I don’t even know how many loyalty programs I’m actually signed up for. That's a sign it’s probably too many.

According to the 2011 COLLOQUY Loyalty Census, the average American household belongs to 18 loyalty programs but actively participates in only eight. I am not alone in my apparent inability to monitor all my rewards programs. The average American household earns $622 in rewards points and miles every year, but fails to redeem $205 of that amount.

“The lion's share of loyalty program membership is comprised of individuals who aren't getting any real benefit,” says Dr. Russell Lacey, an associate professor of marketing at Xavier University in Ohio.

So what can you do to make sure you do get a real benefit from the cards weighing down your key chain?

How to Make the Most of Loyalty Programs

Bryan Pearson, president of LoyaltyOne, a pioneer in loyalty strategies and measured marketing, suggests looking for loyalty programs with meaningful rewards that are easy to earn and redeem. “In the sluggish economy, there's never been a better time to take advantage of every scrap of value from loyalty programs,” says Pearson.

Here are some of Pearson’s insider tips:

  • Read the fine print and know the terms and conditions before you join.
  • Make sure you'll be able to earn enough from a given program that it's worth your time—without changing your lifestyle.
  • Spreading shopping over too many programs dilutes the value of rewards, so count the number of cards in your wallet. If you don't use them all, start paring down.
  • Earn from multiple programs at once. For example, some airlines offer miles if you shop at certain stores or eat at certain restaurants. If you used a rewards credit card at one such restaurant, you would earn points from your card at the same time as you earned miles from your airline.
  • Don't forget "soft benefits” like free shipping, free alterations and members-only shopping hours.

But Should You Share Your Personal Info With a Retailer?

“The irony is that creating customer loyalty is rarely the ultimate aim of customer loyalty programs,” says Dr. Lacey. “Instead, [the real aim] is to collect customer information they otherwise wouldn't get.” So the next time a cashier asks if you’d like to become a “rewards member,” you may want to take a second to evaluate whether the savings will be worth the cost of giving away information on your shopping habits.

RELATED: Why You Should Guard Your Zip Code

We'll take a look at the ins and outs of some popular rewards programs. This should just be a guide to help you know which are worth your time, not a comprehensive review of their programs. For more details, ask at the retail store or look online.

Retail Outlet Basic Loyalty Program Special Credit Card? Extras
Safeway 1 point for every $1 spent on groceries. No Members-only sale prices and personalized deals on items you buy the most. Rewards points can be used for discounts at Safeway gas stations.
CVS 2% back on everyday purchases in the form of CVS "bucks." Join Extracare Pharmacy-->$5 in reward bucks for every 10 prescriptions. ExtraCare Beauty Club-->$5 in reward bucks for $50 spent on beauty. No Personalized coupons and weekly members-only sale prices.
Ace Hardware $5 Reward for every 2,500 points (1,000 bonus points at sign up and 10 points for every $1 spent). With Ace Visa card, up to 10% back quarterly in Ace Rewards Points; up to 5% back on Ace purchases, 2% back on gas and groceries, 1% in Rewards everywhere else. Special members-only offers and in-store discounts.
Diapers.com Family (Soap.com, Wag.com, etc.) 5% back on all eligible products. Rewards automatically applied to your next order; maximum reward per order is $20. No For every customer referral, they'll donate $5 to charity or give you $5 credit each time your friend shops a new site in their network (up to $45). Friend gets 20% off first order at each site.
Target No rewards program if you don't sign up for a credit or debit card. REDcard credit and debit cards both save you 5% on Target purchases, plus give you free shipping and an extra 30 days for returns. Choose an eligible K-12 school and Target will donate up to 1% of your REDcard purchases.
Starbucks Earn 1 star per purchase. 1 star=free birthday drink. 5 stars=free refills. If 30 stars in 12 months, "Gold" status=free drink for every additional 12 stars, personalized Gold Card and special offers. No Receive special offers and coupons via email or text once you achieve "Gold" status.
Sephora 1 point for every $1 spent. For 100 points, choose a deluxe sample; for 500 points, get a limited-edition full-sized product. No Free birthday gift, and may receive invitations to members-only events.
Gap No rewards program if you don't sign up for a credit card. Gap Visa Card: $10 Reward Card for every $200 spent. GapCard (only used in Gap stores): 1 point per $1 spent; $10 Reward Card per 1,000 points. Advance notice of sales, birthday savings and deals every Tuesday.
Sports Authority 1 point per $1 spent. Earn points in 3-month periods, and then get 5% back in "Reward Bucks." No N/A
Best Buy 1 point per $1 spent at Best Buy. $5 reward certificate for every 250 points. "Reward Zone Platinum Mastercard" gives 2 points per eligible dollar spent (comes out to 4% back in rewards). Special events & members-only offers. Become "Premier Silver" member by spending $2,500 in a year and earn 25% more points & free shipping.
  • Fiona

    CVS’s program is awesome! I’m always getting extracare bucks back

  • TiaMaria

    So, I’m still wondering what ARE the best loyalty programs?

    • Eric Seiler

      hi ! I have found a really cool loyatly proram that I would love to show you ! let me know we can chat on faceboook maybe !! regards

  • http://twitter.com/mplifyr mplifyr

    All of the loyalty programs above contribute to an already fragmented market, which makes it hard for consumers. Just look at the table above, how can consumers keep up with the rules for each program? How do they know the number of points in EACH program and what can they redeem from EACH program? This is why over 16 billion dollars goes unredeemed in rewards each year.

    The best loyalty program is one that has a Universal Point system so consumers can earn and redeem from ANY business, keep their points in ONE central location and have the flexibility to choose where they want to redeem them, to suit their lifestyles — https://www.mplifyr.com

  • ksgirl73

    Most of those aren’t much of a savings. CVS, Ace Hardware and Soap.com are all higher priced retailers than their competitors. Have you ever priced shampoo at CVS compared to Target? It’s almost double the price so any savings you might build up with purchases you probably spent more on the products to get you there than you could have by shopping at Walmart or Target.

    Also, the info on Target is incorrect. They have a pharmacy rewards program that you get a 5% coupon toward all purchases in a single shopping trip after filling 6 prescriptions. I know it’s not a lot, but when you consider that you can use manufacturers coupons and Target coupons (from their website) in addition you can actually save quite a bit. I tend to save these coupons and make one huge shopping trip by stocking up for a couple months. You don’t have to have their debit/credit card to do this either. Plus I seem to get a lot of Target coupons mailed to me. I assume it’s because I have my prescriptions filled there, but I seem to be on their radar. I guess I’d just rather do all my shopping in one place rather than going to several different stores. Now they have that new app with coupons too.

  • carbonnet

    As a retailer, we participate in two loyalty programs – one is universal in that it allows you accumulate points from a number of retail stores using a single card (5 Stars). The other program is exclusively for our online store and allows us to offer best loyalty program in fly fishing (www.californiaflyshop.com)