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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confusion -loyalty cards vs loyalty value
  • 9/24/2013 9:14:24 PM

I specialize in Business Analytics with an enphasis on decision support systems to create or tighten corporate strategy.

My comment may have been addressed though I want to make the topic clear from an analytics point of view.

I often encounter conversations relating transactional data to "loyalty" cards. Tracking transactions via a card with a unique ID is technically not a means to track loyalty. This method tracks product purchase patterns to create up/cross sells programs via market basket analyses. As well as potentially helps calculate the customer life cycle and purchase pattern cycles. Bottom line I beleive the name of the card has been misleading, it's not a loyalty card, it's more of a tracking device to better serve the customers purchase pattern.

My point is a Loyalty measurement and category assignment has been known to created more operational improvements and product selection to give the customer the option to become loyal.

Most of the information to measure loyalty is obtained from the shopper and customers. Either face-to-face or phone interviews, email surveys, custome panels,, etc. The voice of the customer VOC is the optimal metric.

The VOC to capture ranges from satisfaction, refferal, and most important the level of expectation vs. performance of the major facets for your business. Let's say we include store associate professionalism/attire, cleanliness of store, hours of operation, parking lot lighting, changing product tags during the mid-day of the last day of the promotion, associate product knowledge, out of stock, display presentation, manager response time, etc.

It appears this method may not apply to some retail but mainly should apply to most. And it also depends on executive support, resources, and budget.

After the VOC is gathered then metrics are calculated to identify the customers in the 3 buckets; advocacy (finds a particular specialty and shouts to the world), cognitive (particluar with product details and pricing, out of stock, really does the research), and overall retention (customer for convenience, and may or may not have a choice where to shop, or just feels comfortable and will not shop despite coupons from competitors).

The analysis will identify most important facet of the business that would address lower cost or an increase revenue. Affected areas can be operations/marketing/advertising/merchandising.

My opinion about retail preference pertains to the loyalty measurement, and really want to voice my opinion that the "loyalty card" does not always promote loyalty and may lead to picking lower margin products.


Here is a process that a shopper/customer probably follows:

Interest in a product









and 3 degrees of Loyalty is created to identify categories for


Advocacy, and

Retention cusomters.

I did enjoy the time,


Re: Birthday
  • 9/24/2013 5:29:30 PM

I agree with you, BethK. Sending you a birthday card is one way to increase affinity. But they probably are using more sophisticated data-mining tools to get at your birth year, too, and there's not much you can do about it. Are there other companies that specifically don't?

Customer Loyalty
  • 9/24/2013 5:15:52 PM

Of course, with your name and the state where you live, they can match you against databses like the ones used by data list companies (you know who they are) and easily match the month and date to get the year. But of course the clerk does not really care - she is only incentivized to ask for the data.

Nonetheless, what is the price at which you are willing to sell your private data? Recently my 15-yr old was enticed to fill out a form at a donut shop offering a free donut in return for joining the email fan club. I told her that her private email address was worth more than just a donut.

Re: null values are still information
  • 9/24/2013 4:21:45 PM

Thanks Pierre, but I don't want to be taking credit for the journey bit. I like that description too, and we have to give credit where it's due... which is with Wilson Raj.

Re: Birthday
  • 9/24/2013 1:50:20 PM

I'll be waiting!

Re: null values are still information
  • 9/24/2013 1:46:07 PM

I like Beth's wording about the customer journey, and how their perception of a data request is related to their journey.  People certainly don't mind someone knowing their age if the information makes sense (the right Robotussin - adult vs kids, for example) and if the agent asking for the information can be trusted.  That last part plays a role in customer service success. Beth highlights yet another factor in how data becomes a big data factor. 

  • 9/24/2013 1:34:07 PM

While the retailier would love as much personal information as you are willing to provide, my guess is your birth month and day will be used to email a discount coupon to you on your birthday next year. Happy Day!

null values are still information
  • 9/24/2013 1:25:41 PM

Even if the company truly respects your wishes to not give your birth year (and they don't use the additional information you gave to look it up), even having a null value can be used predictively.  By not giving your age, you are in a highly biased sample segment, and this alone can be used predictively.

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