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Customer Loyalty Pays

You can save a lot of money these days by being a loyal customer and carrying a card to prove it. Loyalty cards—also called rewards, points or club cards—are the modern equivalent of Green Stamps. Retailers give you a reward for being a frequent shopper; and at the same time, they’re tracking your shopping habits to improve their marketing plans.

About half of all grocery stores offer loyalty cards, and more than nine in 10 shoppers use them at least once a month, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Restaurants, specialty stores, movie theaters and coffee shops also offer loyalty cards. The cards are usually free though some retailers charge an annual fee. And you can usually sign up in a matter of minutes at the store itself or on the retailer’s website.

Rewards vary, but here’s what you may get:

• A bargain. For instance, a supermarket may charge $4.99 regular price for a pound of asparagus, but you get it for $1.77 a pound if you present the card.

• Discounts and coupons on future purchases. These may be triggered by the immediate transaction. For instance, if you buy a bottle of Mr. Clean, you might get a coupon for Ajax cleaner. Similarly, some grocery stores may give frequent-flier miles or discounts at nearby gas stations.

• Free meals, movies, hotel stays or other extras for being a repeat customer. Eat 10 meals—or see 10 movies—and get the next one free.

With so many cards available these days, there has been talk of offering a universal card. But it hasn’t happened. “Every store wants its own brand in front of the customer’s face” says Mike Gatti, executive director of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, So, if you’re a collector, you may wind up with a wallet full of cards or miniature versions dangling from your key chain.

Caroline E. Mayer is a consumer reporter and lives in Arlington, Va.

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