Tesco is looking at creating a three-tiered system that would rank shoppers according to how much they spend. The biggest rewards, whether they be money-off vouchers or special deals on holidays, would go to families which buy large amounts regularly.
Smaller spenders, such as people living alone or older people whose children have left home, would receive much smaller benefits.
Tesco would not comment officially on plans to upgrade its Clubcard system which already has more than 14 million members. "We are always looking at ways to improve the offer for Clubcard members," it said.
However, such a move could trigger similar actions by rival supermarkets and hasten the arrival of the next generation of loyalty cards as retailers try to grab, and keep, customers. Loyalty cards have proved one of the retail sector's most powerful marketing tools in the past few years after Tesco launched Clubcard in 1995.
There are now more 40 million supermarket loyalty cards in circulation, with millions of others available from companies such as Shell, Texaco, Boots and WH Smith.
Although promoted as a way of gaining discounts for shoppers, the level of discount is often as little as 1 per cent.
The main benefit of the cards is the information on shoppers' habits they provide to the retailers. From the database of information the cards yield, stores can determine how much shoppers spend, what they buy, where and when they buy it. They can then use this information to target special promotions and even modify store layouts.
According to Verdict, the retail consultant, a move to "grade" shoppers by their spending is a logical step. "In the beginning, loyalty cards were a way of giving discounts but making sure they did not go to everyone," said the managing director, Richard Hyman. "This segments it even more."
But he cautioned that a move to change the structure of the scheme could backfire if it was not handled correctly. A tiered system would mean that shoppers with smaller bills would be subsidising heavier spenders. "It could alienate some people if it is not handled well," Mr Hyman said.
Rival retailers said they are looking at new ways to use their loyalty cards to "get closer to customers". Safeway says it is testing palm-top computers at its store in Basingstoke. The computer checks the cardholder's shopping history before making "tailored" special offers available. Boots has been testing a similar system with in-store kiosks linked to its Advantage card.
However, Internet specialists point out that traditional high street retailers are still some way behind Internet retailers in "relationship marketing".
Companies such as Amazon.com, the Internet book retailer, already send e-mails to customers recommending certain titles if a shopper has shown a particular interest in a certain type of book.
HOW REWARDING ARE THE MAJOR LOYALTY CARDS?
How does it work?
A point, worth a penny, for every pound spent over pounds 5. Customers receive money off at Tesco stores, petrol stations, coffee shops and chemists
14m cardholders since launch in February 1995
How to redeem it
Customers are sent money-off vouchers to the value of the points they've earned
Link-ups with other retailers such as B&Q. ClubCard Plus offers banking services and loans
Still the most popular supermarket loyalty card but operates with a fiddly voucher system
Like Tesco, one point is earned for every full pound spent
10m customers since launch in October 1995
Immediate discounts in stores. Customers also receive a monthly catalogue of special offers
Annual creche pass and links to Odeon cinemas and BestWestern Hotels. New parents get 10 per cent off entire shopping bill
Simple to use with no vouchers. Just hand over the card and get money off your bill
A point for every pounds 1 spent at supermarkets and Savacentres. Customers receive vouchers worth pounds 2.50 when they have saved up 250 points
12m cardholders since launch in June 1996
Vouchers can be put towards shopping or other special offers
Can also be put towards BT bills, meals in Whitbread restaurants or Air Miles. Links with UCI cinemas and Alton Towers
Good links with other companies - but another fiddly voucher system
Worth a penny for each pound spent at 25 participating companies incuding Shell, John Menzies, Avis and Hilton Hotels
4m cardholders since October 1994 launch
By using the card when making purchases at 25 participating companies
Members can also use the points for discounts at various sports arenas, travel firms, electrical stores and clothes shops
Wide range of participating companies
One point for every 10p spent on purchases of more than pounds 1. Card holders also get a 2 per cent discount
4.5m members since launch in July 1997
Value on card redeemed against store products
New offers to be announced in next few months
High savings, simple procedure, but restricted to in-store products
One point for every 25p spent. Each point is worth 1p towards more than 10,000 products
10m card holders since launch in September 1997
Points value deducted from shopping bill at till
Boots is testing kiosks that will recognise your card and give shoppers customised discounts
Simple redeeming procedure and big discount, but restricted to in-store productsReuse content