Loyalty Cards

Other than potential wallet bulge, I like loyalty cards. Subway used to have the “Sub Club” card where you buy eight subs and get the next one free. Back in the day at the one near my high school, they started out with a “stamps” system where you literally licked and applied little yellow stamps to the card. Then they moved to a punchcard, where the cutout was a unique shape of a double-horned unicorn1. Then I think they moved to an all-digital system.

Changes in a system like that aren’t random, they had problems. Stamps are clearly flawed. They could rub off a persons card in their wallet. An employee could steal a whole roll of stamps and sell them to their friends. The cutout system was better, but there is some possibility a person could find another double-horned unicorn cardpuncher and have free subs for life. Also employees could quadruple stamp their friends.

Clearly the digital system is best. People have cards, the computer calculates how many loyalty points they get, employee slides card during purchase and applies points to card. But of course it isn’t that simple. How do people get these cards? What happens if they lose it? Let’s clear all that up with instructions on the best way to handle a digital loyalty card system.

The Best Way

To get a card, the employee simply hands you one during checkout2. There is no form to fill out or other hoops to jump through. Each card has a unique number, and this purchases points are immediately associated with that card.

That card will be fully functional, as-is, forever.

So what about when the card is lost? That’s where registration comes in. On the back of the card there are instructions to register it. Simply text message the number on the front of the card to 1-800-REG-CARD. Done. Now that card is associated with the phone number that text came from. If you lose it, you can text “LOST” to 1-800-REG-CARD and it will text you back a unique code. Give that code to the cashier, she swipes a new card, and that becomes your replacement card instantly3.

To incentivize you doing this, you earn a few points for registering the card.

I’d suggest never using the phone number to do something obtrusive like text message people promotions. However I’m sure there is some interesting demographic data that can be gleaned from a huge amount of opt-in phone numbers tied to your unique number-based system.


Tim Sabat, Sara Cope, and I discussed this over beers. Credit where credit is due.


1 I believe a double-horned unicorn is actually just called a bicorn.

2 This is the only possible pain point. The employee may still need to ask “Are you a member of our loyalty program?” which is a turn-off. It will somehow need to be made clear the no-signup-necessary awesomeness of this system.

3 Information about how to get a replacement card will be 1) available at checkout 2) available online 3) known by employees and 4) possibly on the card itself. Even though you’ve lost it you might know someone else with one or remember the instructions since they are so easy.


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6 responses to “Loyalty Cards”

  1. Dan Harper says:

    Subway here in the UK introduced a card system like this maybe a couple years ago (still being used).

    You can grab a card next to the cash register and use it instantly. You earn points every so much you spend. I think 500 points = free 6″, 1000 points = free footlong. Card is swiped and you get a receipt with your new point balance.

    You can register the card online to view your balance, and occasionally they put out a promotion on the site to earn more points.

    There are also apps for iPhone & Android which you can use instead of your card, and to view your balance etc.

  2. Aaron Stone says:

    Cool! You should really work as a sales manager in Subway =)

  3. Chris Coyier says:

    Even better idea from Sara:

    Just use your driver’s licence.

    It’s already tied to you of course and you always have it on you. It should work for generic ID’s too, in case of non-drivers. No registration necessary, no need to offer a replacement system because the government already provides that =).

    Of couse, who knows what the technical challenges and security issues of this are, but conceptually it’s an excellent idea.

  4. Isn’t a double-horned unicorn actually just called a “goat?” :)

    Using a driver’s license or other id card (such as a credit card) is a bad idea. Who wants their purchasing history tied to something that is personally linked to themself? At least with a generic Sub Card you can simply reset the history every so often just by getting a new card.

    • Chris Coyier says:

      I’m not following exactly… You want to be able to share your loyalty card amongst multiple people? And reset history? Isn’t the point that you keep accumulating points?

  5. Paul Cloke says:

    “Who wants their purchasing history tied to something that is personally linked to themself?”

    – Do you ever pay by card? there is a purchase history being collected right there! Data like that is always being collected. Stores use this to promote items _close_ to what you buy – but that’s getting into a whole new topic of data privacy.

    Phone Apps seem to be the best way to go, linking your rewards to the phone number. An App could scan a bar-code on the receipt, and give instant balance notes. For those without a capable smart-phone, a text message including the bar-codes unique number could be sent.

    Redeeming could be as easy as a bar-code ‘image’ on the smart-phone generated by the App, a code generated in response to a quick text message whilst your stood in the queue.

    Good talking point Chris.

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