Color Me Stupid About Customer Loyalty

Coupon in hand, one night last week, I headed out to a beauty retailer to buy a certain brand of shampoo that isn't available at the big-box store I generally frequent.

While checking out, the cashier asked if I belonged to the retailer's customer loyalty card program. I didn't, and she had caught me in just the right mood. I figured I'd be back soon enough to replenish my shampoo, so I said, "Sure, I'll sign up." She'd promised me it'd take but a few seconds, and she was right. She asked just a couple of questions, including "What's your birth date?"

That last one gave me pause, less because I'm self-conscious about my age but more because it seemed she thought I might be. "Don't worry," she was quick to add, with a bit of an apologetic look on her face, "I don't need the year, just the month and day."

Hmm. Granted, within the span of the last 15 hours I had worked a full day, cheered my son on at his soccer game, pulled together a quick dinner, did the dishes, and was now out shopping. But did I really look so haggard as to make the clerk concerned how I'd react to being asked my age? OK, maybe. But still, I wasn't so tired as not to be somewhat amused… and altogether intrigued.

Was the clerk as sensitive when asking the age question of any patron signing up for the loyalty program -- or just those who appeared to be over a certain age? Did she only ask the question so sensitively for female customers or did guys, as rare as they might be shopping in this particular type of store, get the same reaction? Was the clerk acting so sensitively on her own, or was she instructed on how to be apologetic when asking for age?

But the big question that popped into mind was about the loyalty-card program itself and not the clerk's intent. Why did the retailer only ask for birth month and day? Certainly the real marketing bonus comes in knowing a customer's age, and for that the company would need the year. Many beauty products and services are ageless, but many aren't. Certainly age would be a critical component of understanding who I am and what I might be enticed to buy. Would a coupon for Glop & Glam Blueberry Blast shampoo be more likely to get me in the store, or one for L'Oreal Youth Code Dark Spot Correcting and Illuminating Serum Corrector?

The age question was still on my mind the next day when, coincidentally, I'd been scheduled to talk with Wilson Raj, global marketing director of customer intelligence, at SAS (this site's sponsor), about customer-loyalty-program research the company had collaborated on in the UK (more on that in another post). So I asked him what he made of the beauty retailer coming up short on age.

Essentially, what he told me was that I shouldn't be duped. The beauty retailer surely would want to know my age, and it'll use other resources to find it out. The clerk, perhaps, might even have filled in an age range she selected based on my appearance. Maybe knowing that I'm somewhere in the range of, say, 40 to 55 and not 20 to 35 would be accurate enough for the company's marketing purposes.

Also plausible is that because the retailer gathered my name, my address, and the month and day of my birth, it can now mine publicly available resources like social sites to learn the year of my birth and other information about me. It'll then be able to append what it's collected to the data it's asked for upfront. "It'll mine and aggregate and surmise," Raj said.

Well, color me stupid -- or at least more tired than I'd thought.

So this beauty retailer may very well have made a tactical gambit that I'd be more willing to join its loyalty program and share personal data if it avoided explicitly asking me how old I was. Interesting, as chances are I'd have signed up for the program anyway, especially if it meant discounts on the special pricey shampoo I've started to buy. As Raj pointed out, life is a journey. Research shows that customers are more likely to share information or give permission if they know the relationship will be relevant and flow into that journey.

So now I'll be watching this beauty retailer's reaching-out to me like a hawk, aging eyes and all. Is it sending me personalized incentives, clearly based on knowledge of my age? Was it, in other words, less than transparent and truthful about the demographics it was after? If so, what will I do in response? Will I shrug my shoulders, grab the latest offer, and head to the store? Or will I cancel my membership and find somewhere else to buy what I need?

What would you do?

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Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: Birthday
  • 9/27/2013 4:03:49 PM

" It was awkward and she was a bit confrontational, it really made me not want to take my girls back there again but I understand that this was probably part of a procedure that she didn't really understand and she was just doing what she was told to do."


I think you're right for not wanting to take your girls back there.  Sure, the girl was just doing her job but any kind of confrontational attitude is simply not acceptable.  It sounds to me like the company needs to do a better job of training their employees on how to handle a customer's refusal to give information.  Actually, this is something that every single company should be doing.

Re: Loyalty and the perks
  • 9/27/2013 11:40:06 AM

That's true. There's so much cushion between the wholesale and retailer prices. But we as consumers are at their mercy!

Re: Guessing age is easy if you have other info
  • 9/27/2013 11:35:31 AM

Behavior tracking can go so wrong, though -- irritatingly so, I might say. I can't tell you how many mailed promotions I've gotten in the last year from Buy Buy Baby. I'm assuming this is because I've bought a few baby items during this period -- but all as gifts. I didn't actually purchase anything at Buy Buy Baby, but I have shopped at Bed, Bath & Beyond so I have to think the parent company must be doing some cross-referencing of some sort and maybe tapped into another purchasing database that had info on my baby-related purchases. I suppose I wouldn't be so irritated if I didn't know that the company could be using better analytics to optimize its marketing campaigns -- and save money in the process. 

Customer Loyalty
  • 9/26/2013 2:08:12 PM

It's difficult to resist large discounts when it's free and takes seconds to sign up for a customer loyalty program. Merchants can get use rewards and discounts to get customers to give out information they would otherwise not. 

Re: Guessing age is easy if you have other info
  • 9/26/2013 1:06:48 PM

Beth - I'm not a marketer by trade, but here's what I think.  The best predictor of how a customer might respond to an offer is probably his/her past behavior -- the classic recency-frequency-monetary method of segmentation.  So if you can track behavior of a customer, regardless of demographic, that's probably most useful.  If you are looking for a YOB to help with segmentation, then I think you limit the effort to what's easy to get or to infer. (Did I buy Geritol versus baby diapers? Guess my age.).  If you are looking for specific birthday info for important promotions (as casinos do), then you better make sure the customer provided that info willingly, lest you creep them out completely.

Re: Loyalty and the perks
  • 9/26/2013 12:33:32 PM


Nothing is really free, but but a 40 percent discount might be a real deal depending of the actual price of the item. But discounts might just be a marketing strategy to make you buy more items.

Re: Guessing age is easy if you have other info
  • 9/26/2013 12:16:40 PM

Chris -- I love that you created and shared the Facebook app and SAS program for inferring year from day and month. What do you think we're talking about here in terms of time involved to gather a customer's month and day of birth at POS and then either mine Facebook or a purchased or public database and use a program like the one you've created to get to a person's age? Is it worth a marketer's time and effort -- or only if there's a remarkedly compelling reason to get that info but not ask the person for it?

Guessing age is easy if you have other info
  • 9/26/2013 9:34:20 AM

Most of my Facebook friends publish their birthday (month/day)...because those birthday messages are such a big part of the Facebook experience!

But many withhold the birth year from the public. I suppose that, like you, they are trying not to give up too much information.

But do you know what they do share? High school and college history, including name of institution and year graduated -- so they connect with their old school pals!  I wrote a Facebook app and SAS program that shows how easy it is to infer a birth year from this.

Also, public records can reveal this information.  In NC it's the law that voter registration records be available to the public in electronic format.  Up until just a few years ago you could actually download the voter rolls in Wake County in CSV, revealing name, districts, party affiliation and birthday.  It's a bit tighter now for the general public, but surely a marketer could find or purchase a list with similar information and combine it with what they've collected from you.

Re: Birthday
  • 9/26/2013 7:19:30 AM

The girl behind the counter was dazed to say the least when I told her my daughter wouldn't be giving her any personal information. There were a couple times where she said "I just need her email address" and I replied that my kids don't hand out personal information to people that they don't know.  It was awkward and she was a bit confrontational, it really made me not want to take my girls back there again but I understand that this was probably part of a procedure that she didn't really understand and she was just doing what she was told to do.

Re: null values are still information
  • 9/25/2013 3:28:32 PM

I think so. But it does mean that I'll have to suffer through marketing campaigns that don't interest me whatsoever. Just yesterday, for example, I received an email with a discount offer on salon services there. But I have no intention of getting my hair done at the beauty retailers. If the retailer knew me a little better, it'd know this. ;-)


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