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When a sales clerk asks you if you want to join a free store rewards program, do you decline with an answer like, “No, thanks. I don’t need another card in my wallet”? Or maybe you don’t want to take 60 seconds to fill out the application form. Or maybe you don’t like giving out your phone number and email address to companies so they can track your purchases.
There is definitely a growing trend of stores offering free rewards cards. In addition to building customer loyalty (the theory is that you’ll return to stores where you have a card to earn points, rather than shopping at a competitor), these cards permit stores to collect valuable data about who’s purchasing what, when and how much they’re spending. Just like tracking our web-surfing habits (which Google does), this data is supposedly used to provide a better experience and give customers more of what they want and less of what they don’t.
But, the bottom line for consumers is, using rewards cards wisely can save you a lot of money.
It may take a few extra seconds during each transaction to pull out your rewards card and let the clerk scan it, but it’s time well spent. You’ll also have to, in most cases, remember to use the rewards you earn. Programs like Shop Your Way Rewards from Sears and Kmart make this easy — the salesclerk can check your points balance right at the register and redeem your points (with no minimums!) for cash off that transaction.
So, how do you maximize your rewards ROI (return-on-investment) when you’re shopping at your favorite stores?
1. Always have your rewards card with you. I like the stores that offer little cards that fit right on your key ring, that way I never forget to use my rewards cards. I have so many now, I’m thinking of sorting them alphabetically on my key ring so I can see which rewards cards I have.
If you keep your rewards cards in your wallet, you may want to put them in a separate section from your credit cards for easy access.
2. Check your points frequently. In some stores, the salesclerks can check your points balance for you. Do this as a habit whenever you shop in these stores, that way you can take advantage of redeeeming points when you earn enough.
3. Know the rules for each program. It’s a lot to remember, so just remember the important information for stores you shop in frequently. Which stores will accept rewards coupons through your smartphone? Which stores need printouts? Which ones let you redeem your rewards just by scanning your card? If you’re shopping at a store you don’t go to frequently but you joined the free rewards program, take a few minutes either while you’re shopping (on your smartphone) or before you leave home, to check your points status, find out what you can earn and if you have any points, coupons or special offers to redeem.
4. Log “missing receipts.” Forgot to use your card? You just broke rule #1 to maximize your rewards. But that’s okay. Most programs let you log purchases online after the fact. Just sign in with your receipt handy and claim your points.
5. Develop a system for your coupons. You may choose to leave coupons in an envelope in your card. Or maybe on the table where you keep your keys. The only way to really maximize your rewards programs is to remember to use the coupons — so develop a system so that you have them with you whenever you go shopping, then watch your savings add up!