The thing about... Loyalty cards

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Certain words are tops with marketeers because of their great emotive power. Loyalty, for instance. Loyalty was once something you gave your spouse, your country, your friends. It existed for its own sake, one of the altruisms which one indulged without expectation of reward because it made the world a better place. And now? Now, the word most often associated with loyalty is "Card". Loyalty now means buying enough food in one supermarket to earn pounds 5 off your next bill.

The loyalty factor has been around a long time: the first obvious example was the still-running Co-op divvy. Green Shield went under nearly 20 years ago, the last time shoppers noticed that they were actually paying for the scheme in increased till prices, but we have been lured back by the hi-tech, swipe-it-and-see sophistication of the new generation.

Books of stamps conjure up images of nights spent licking in front of the coal fire. A swipe card makes the holder feel devilishly modern. More people have loyalty cards these days than credit cards. Now that Tesco offers interest of 5.12 per cent on credit balances and a cheap APR on debit on the new Cabinet Plus - better than the average current account - they seem sure to expand even further.

This, at least in the short term, is good news for the consumer. It also has another significant good-news factor for the retailer: the database. Soon the big multiples will hold almost as much information about us as Reader's Digest, and will be able to target us as pesto buyers or consumers of party eggs. Boots, going national after successful trials in Norwich, can remind us to replace old toothbrushes and out-of-date pharmaceuticals. Sainsbury's can match baked beans with shower curtains in their Homebase outlets. Until the day when one chain dominates the marketplace, we will be bombarded with savings.

But the small trader can fight back. In March, retailers in Leominster, Hereford and Worcester introduced the Loyal to Leominster card, which offers inducements throughout the town centre. It seems to have stopped the rot - at one point 35 of the town's shops were boarded up - which set in when Safeway opened there four years ago. The scheme has 8,000 members, and tourists can pick up a visitor's version. Now similar schemes are being considered in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Ross-on-Wye and Belper. Don't you know there's a trolley war on?

Serena Mackesy