The world’s first frequent flyer program — the concept’s undisputed cradle — was introduced by American Airlines in May 1981. The perks included upgrade and travel offers for customers according to the miles they flew in their cabins. Hotels, initially deferential partners to the airlines, came on the scene next, followed by car rental agencies and then pretty much everyone else.


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The best of the lot have come to understand that the street runs both ways, and the dawning of the big data age — whereby technology has facilitated companies’ collection of great quantities of details about their customers — has meant brands’ outreach efforts to customers are more targeted than ever. The best loyalty programs reward shoppers for this glimpse into their personal tastes with discounted opportunities to buy the things they actually like.

Still, there are lessons to be learned in this discipline. A recent study by real-time agency marketing hub KiteWheel revealed a disconnect between the two sides of the equation. When asked what loyalty programs’ purpose should be, 73 percent of consumers said it’s for brands to show appreciation to their loyal customers; 66 percent of marketers, however, said it’s for consumers to demonstrate their loyalty to the brand.

Moreover, while the average American household participates in 21.9 loyalty programs, according to research conducted by loyalty research house Colloquy, less than half of them are active.

A few loyalty programs have successfully embraced the essential genius that marked their beginnings — establishing and sustaining relationships with the folks that keep their brands alive — while staying on top of the technology that’s evolved so rapidly since.

Here are the top seven loyalty programs, along with a collection of the features that make them stand out in their field:

American Airlines’ AAdvantage

  • Loyalty-focused travel website Flyertalk picked this Dallas-based airline as the best US mileage program in 2014, for the second year in a row (thousands of members of the “Flyertalk travel community” vote for the winners).
  • One of the largest and most popular loyalty programs in the world, AAdvantage allows members to earn miles for flying on American Airlines and participating airlines, as well as for transacting with over 1,000 participating companies, both travel and non-travel-related.
  • Members can redeem miles for flights to nearly 1,000 destinations worldwide, as well as othr awards, including flight upgrades, vacation packages, car rentals, hotel stays and other retail products.
  • The program includes generous upgrade mechanisms (Executive Platinum elite-level members get eight free one-way systemwide upgrades).

Starwood Preferred Guest

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  • Guests earn Starpoints by staying in any of Starwood’s more than 1,100 hotels and resorts across nine distinctive brands — including St. Regis, and Westin — in nearly 100 countries.
  • Unlike some hoteliers that just allows rewards redemption at their own hotels, Starpoints can be redeemed on purchases at a range of retailers, including Starbucks, Amazon and iTunes; on tickets to concerts or sporting events; and on flights and hotel stays.
  • Users can earn Starpoints (one point for every $1 spent) on everyday purchases using the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express.

Safeway: Rewards Points

  • Using their Safeway Club Card at the checkout scores customers one point for every dollar spent. Every 100 points nets you a 10-cents-per-gallon reward for a single fill-up at a Safeway gas station.
  • Customers earn “stars” by showing their cards at the cash register, participating in product promotions and engaging with the brand via online initiatives.
  • Stars can be redeemed for Starbucks’ products, and frequent users are upgraded to higher levels of reward cash-in opportunities (five accrued stars in a year earns you green level status, 30 stars bumps you up to gold).
  • A Starbucks mobile app allows users to efficiently track and redeem rewards.
  • The rewards program is generous, and increasingly so as purchases accrue.

National Car Rental’s Emerald Club

  • Executive Travel Magazine named National’s Emerald Club “Best Rental Car Company Loyalty Program” in 2013.
  • The rental process is expedited via various methods, including a “drop-and-go” service and e-receipts.
  • Members receive EmeraldAlerts, texts and e-mails to remind them of critical rental details, like their scheduled pickup and dropoff times.
  • Membership means there are no second-driver fees (typically about $10/day).
  • Members can pick from a multitude of reward choices, including hotel stays, free rental days and the opportunity to convert points into frequent flyer miles.

 

Bloomingdale’s Loyalist Program

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  • Users are rewarded for every single dollar spent, in-store or online (earning between one and four points, depending on their method of payment, with Bloomingdale’s Reserve American Express card scoring the most, and cash scoring the least).
  • Points are multiplied during frequent promotional periods throughout the year.
  • Users get a $25 gift card when they hit 5,000 points.
  • Members whose spending tops $3,500 annually get four points per dollar spent, and free shipping, no matter the value of the purchase.
  • Bloomingdales has a mobile app that makes managing points and progress easy.

Walgreens’ Balance Rewards

  • This program is noteworthy for rewarding members for taking care of their health.
  • Members earn points through various means, including immunizations (worth 500 points), filling prescriptions (worth 500 points), physical activity and tracking weight loss (20 points per mile when you walk, run or bike; 20 points per daily weight-tracking log, and 20 points daily for tracking blood pressure or blood glucose numbers
  • Points can be redeemed for in-store gift cards (5,000 points equals a $5 reward).
  • The Walgreens mobile app makes points calculations automatic.

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