Editor-At-Large: Cut up your loyalty card! Say no to yoga!

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The Independent Online

There is a myth being propagated by major supermarkets, a fantasy that, far from being shopkeepers, they are quasi-charitable organisations with our happiness and well-being as their driving force. Utter crap, of course. Retailers are in business for one reason only, and that is

There is a myth being propagated by major supermarkets, a fantasy that, far from being shopkeepers, they are quasi-charitable organisations with our happiness and well-being as their driving force. Utter crap, of course. Retailers are in business for one reason only, and that is

to make a profit for their shareholders. It it were otherwise they would be called co-operatives or collectives. Loyalty cards are potent weapons in the retailing war, gimmicks to persuade us to step through one door rather than another. Even snooty Marks & Spencer has succumbed to them. But let's be clear about one thing: loyalty cards benefit only the retailer, not the customer. You have to spend money in order to earn points. And so the people in our society with the least money are the least likely to derive maximum savings or rewards. Last week a survey revealed that the middle class is better at scrimping than the poor is. I'm not surprised. It takes time to utilise any benefit offered by a loyalty card.

A book - Scoring Points; How Tesco Is Winning Customer Loyalty by Clive Humby and Terry Hunt, with Tim Phillips - is being published this week. It chronicles how Tesco has become the most successful supermarket through the development of its loyalty card scheme. Of course, these cards work to a degree, if you can manage to use all the vouchers on food you might actually need.

But we must keep one salient fact at the forefront of our minds when considering loyalty points as "free money". It is not free: just like accruing air miles, we have to spend hundreds of pounds in order to benefit. Tesco Clubcards give you coupons and discount vouchers, which can be redeemed only at their stores, on brands that they, not you, have selected. Although the scheme has allegedly cost the company £1bn since it was launched in 1995, Tesco still managed to make £628m pre-tax profit over the past six months. Now perhaps you will, like me, consider that what Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's claim to "give" us back with these schemes is a pathetic gesture.

Last week I went to the Whitstable branch of Tesco. The store, on the north Kent coast, is in the throes of being rebuilt. Over the past few weeks customers have had to find their way around a supermarket in which all the merchandise is being constantly reshuffled. For a start, the yoghurt was in three different places. God knows where the mineral water and taramasalata were. There was a large sign marked "Trolleys" in the car-park, but not a single trolley was to be seen.

When I reached the check-out I placed my shopping on the counter only to be told by a sales assistant that this was a 10-items-only queue. Since there were less than 10 customers spread across all the checkouts, at this point, I am afraid, dear readers, that I lost it. I started throwing my shopping on the floor, saying that as a consumer I had a choice, and that Sainsbury's was just down the road. My sales operative reluctantly relented, and begrudgingly charged me £40-plus for the privilege of purchasing from her store.

Tesco, like all supermarkets, is centrally run, and apparently uninterested in customer care at a local level. Because if it was concerned about losing out to Sainsbury's, it would have slashed prices while rebuilding to compensate its customers.

And if its stores are empty at 8am, keeping express tills operational is madness. And how much of its profit has been returned to the communities it has desecrated? It doe not give away free coffee to shoppers, offer child-care to mums, or supply free lunches to pensioners, as basic company policy.

And please bear in mind that if you are one of the 10 million people in Britain who has signed up to a loyalty card scheme, you have agreed to give retailers valuable information about your shopping habits absolutely gratis. The notion that we enjoy cheap food is a joke. Our food is still the most expensive in Europe. Supermarkets are convenient, especially for working women. But any benefits come at a pretty high price, socially and economically.

Wacky girls

Three-quarters of all women in Britain spend money on alternative therapies, from yoga to Pilates, from massage to homeopathy, according to a survey last week. This spiritual spending, as it has been dubbed, now amounts to an astonishing £670m a year.

Some commentators suggest that these treatments are popular because modern women use them to deal with stress. What piffle! People sign up for therapies, from colonic irrigation to rolfing, like children at the pick 'n' mix sweet counter in Woolworths, after reading about them in newspapers and magazines.

Madonna, Sting, Christy Turlington and Gwyneth Paltrow are all responsible for the boom in yoga. No doubt the martial arts will be this month's fad, as we all aim to look like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. When we realise after about 10 weeks that our therapy of choice doesn't generate a cure for fatigue or flab, we drop the meditation and sign up for shiatsu.

Over the past year I've given up vitamin pills, diet supplements, yoga and acupuncture. I've saved hundreds of pounds, without a doubt. I have also eliminated the stress incurred when public transport or work makes you late for an expensive appointment. All these treatments create more anxiety than they actually deal with.

The new governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, once came to Britain to promote a documentary he had made. It was called Pumping Iron. I interviewed him in a gym in south London and had to purchase a bag of doughnuts in a nearby bakery so that Arnie could keep up his calorie count.

Years later I went to his house in California for a Thanksgiving celebration. We were given just one glass of champagne during the evening and had to sit on gold chairs for a screening of an interminable Disney animated movie, The Little Mermaid. Arnie is certainly not an intellectual, but I would say he possesses considerably more brain cells than the voters of the state that decided he'd make a great governor.

This is a man who has cheated on his wife, molested women, and whose movies have plots worthy of a cartoon strip for the under-10s. California is a state with serious environmental problems, from pollution to drought. Its power supplies are chaotic. It has a large immigrant population, appalling gun crime and gangs in its cities. And now a man who drives a Humvee and smokes giant cigars is in charge. Who's going to be writing his script?