Club cards, reward points, and other customer loyalty schemes took a bashing in 2016. This year we ask are they still worth it? Were they ever worth it?

Loyalty cards were initially designed by businesses to reward loyal customers for shopping at their stores, but over the past 20 years they have instead become a rich source of marketing data for the firms that offer them.

As the schemes become ever more sophisticated, so to does the data mining techniques used by the organisations operating them. This has led to the erosion of consumers’ benefits, and increased return on investment for shops.

Firstly, lets take a look at the big supermarkets

A woman in a supermarket

Back in 2014 Sainsbury’s halved the number of Nectar points it gives its shoppers, from two points per pound to one. While in 2016 Tesco terminated its ‘Clubcard boos't scheme which allowed customers to exchange points for vouchers worth double the value to spend in its stores.

Both supermarkets offer credit cards to help you gain more points, but even these have been cut in recent years.

Using the Tesco Clubcard, a family spending £70 per week on their shopping would need to spend £7,000 to walk away with a week’s free shopping from Tesco. Or put another way. They’d need to shop at Tesco every week for two years.

The situation with Nectar is even worse. Nectar points are worth just 0.5p per point, so that same family would need to spend £14,000 at Sainsbury’s to earn a free shop.

A 2016 supermarket price comparison by consumer magazine Which? revealed that prices at Aldi were 25 per cent less than Tesco and 30 per cent less than Sainsbury’s. Given that Aldi was over £10 cheaper than any other supermarket in the test, and doesn’t necessarily stock everything a family might need for a full weekly shop, let’s instead take a look at Asda.

On the measured weekly shop, Asda came out in second place, making it the cheapest of the large traditional supermarkets. Here, the basket of goods used by Which? cost £50.96 compared to £53.90 at Tesco and £57.95 at Sainsbury’s. That’s a saving of five per cent, and twelve per cent respectively.

These figures don’t take into account special offers or double points promotions, but such incentives will not be available every week at every supermarket and even then it would still only result in a two per cent saving at Tesco, and a one per cent saving at Sainsbury’s.

Obviously there are considerations around convenience, taste, and the shopping experience, but for those looking to reduce the cost of their weekly shop, it might be worth running it through a comparison such as MySupermarket.com to see the proportionate savings that could be made.

Air Miles and frequent flying

A British Airways plane

‘Air miles' are one the most popular loyalty schemes around, but frequent flyers are no better off than their supermarket reward card carrying counterparts. In fact, in some cases, using air miles to claim a ‘free’ flight could cost more than paying cash.

Take British Airways and the Avios scheme for example. Previously an economy flight to New York would net you 3,458 Avios (the trip is 3,458 miles). Cut backs in 2015 changed this. Now those flying on the cheapest tickets will only earn 25-50 per cent of the points, depending on how cheap the ticket is.

Oddly the inverse is true for Business and First Class travel, which will return 150-250 per cent, and 250-300 per cent respectively. So the system is stacked against the average traveller.

When it comes to air miles, flying long haul saves you money in the short haul. 4,000 Avios will get you a free one-way flight from London to Paris (as an example), but you'll still have to pay £17.50 in fees and charges. A saving of almost £40 compared to buying the ticket outright.

Consider though that even on a return flight to Melbourne costing £712 with BA, you’d only earn 5,248 Avios. That same flight with Cathay Pacific costs £613. The £99 saving is easily enough to buy that short haul trip to Paris and have a bit of spending money left over.

Things get even more interesting when we look at redeeming points on long haul flights. Take our original example of a flight from London to New York. This requires 13,000 Avios, and £244 fees and taxes one-way, so 26000 points and £488 return (there are no return savings when redeeming points). Bizarrely this is more expensive than buying the exact same flight direct from BA themselves (£400), or through a partner such as Finnair (who's flight is actually operated by BA).

If you are going to be flying with an airline that has a scheme, BA (Avios), Virgin Atlantic (Flying Club), AirFrance/KLM (Flying Blue), then you might as well collect the points, but you should never fly for the points alone. As we’ve shown it’s often easy to find a flight with a comparable airline for much less. Leaving you with enough cash left over to buy your short haul ticket outright and still have money left over. Regardless of the scheme, never spend air miles on long haul flights. Instead use comparison sites such as Skyscanner and Kayak to get the best price for your flight, and collect points as a bonus.

Cosmetics and toiletries – spend less, look just as good

Superdrug

Of course loyalty schemes aren’t just limited to supermarkets and airlines. These days nearly all major highstreet brands offer some for of reward card, but the guiding principle is the same.

Take Boot’s Advantage card for instance. It currently offers four points for every £1 spent in-store. It would take a £500 spent to earn £20 worth of points. It’s main rival, Superdrug, also offers a loyalty card this time called the Beauty Card. The card offers one point per pound spent in-store, meaning a £500 spend would only yield £5 worth of points.

On the face of it, you’d be better off sticking with Boots, but Superdrug is often cheaper than Boots when it comes to branded cosmetics.

Still, you could save nearly 15 per cent by shunning both brands in favour of supermarkets instead. Price data compiled by ‘This is Money’, showed that a basket of the twelve most popular branded beauty products (as bought through mySupermarket.com) could be bought from Supermarkets for 15 per cent less than Boots and 7 per cent less than Superdrug.

Women spend over £2,000 per year on maintaining their looks, compared to just over half that for men. Ditching these two highstreet favourites could result in yearly savings of around £300, and £150 respectively.

Are loyalty cards and rewards worth it?

Yes, and no. Make no mistake, today’s loyalty programs exist solely for the benefit of the companies supplying them. They often pail in comparison to searching for the best outright deal, but if you are going to be spending somewhere that has a loyalty scheme then it makes sense to collect the points anyway.

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