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How to annoy people with your loyalty program

You're walking into your favorite coffee shop. The eyes of the girl behind the counter light up as she sees you, and her face opens up in a big smile. She waves and says 'the usual?' You smile back, nod and take a seat near the counter and look through the menu, thinking about getting something to eat. While she's making your cappuccino with an extra shot of espresso, the girl says: 'you know that healthy carrot cake muffin you love? Well, we have a similar one with blueberry and banana. You can try it for half price!'

So simple, yet so effective. You'd be a fool to resist such a great offer! Which is why more and more brands are trying to be like that cute girl at the coffee shop. And so many of them are failing miserably. We're all raving about big data, recommendation engines and personalization algorithms getting better and better. But when I look at what some big brands come up with, I'm just really disappointed.

New loyalty programs by Albert Heijn and Etos

The biggest chain of supermarkets in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, just started a personalized loyalty program. About time, since they've had their 'Bonuskaart' – a loyalty card that offers extra savings – since 1998. Their Ahold sister Etos, a drugstore, joined in on the fun by introducing their own loyalty card and loyalty app. Since I often shop at both stores, I signed up for their newsletter, curious to see what they would come up with. Each weekly newsletter has one (Etos) or two (Albert Heijn) personalized offers. I've been getting them for a few months, and so far I haven't bought any of the suggested products.

'Personalised' offers

My shopping habits are pretty stereotypical. I like healthy, fresh food. I don't buy cookies, candy, soda or other overly processed or sugar laden products (yeah, I'm one of those super annoying people – I wouldn't admit it either if it wasn't for the sake of this article). I absolutely detest regular potatoes and I'm allergic to bell peppers. I've been this way since I got my Bonuskaart, years ago. So let's look at some of the offers I got.

Potatoes and sauce to go with those potatoes I'm never going to eat. This is just a selection: I must have gotten at least 6 potato-related offers so far.

A bunch of snacks I'll probably never buy. In fact, if I absolutely had to buy a bunch of (unhealthy) snacks, the first two would be at the bottom of the list.

A vegetable I've never ever bought, since I'm allergic to them. I got this offer not once, not twice, but three times. You'd think that they'd keep track of how often a personal offer if used, right? Not buying something ever is a good indication of a mark missed.

A more subtle approach to personalised offers

What's mildly infuriating is that these offers are always introduced with the phrase 'Here are your personalized offers, based on previous purchases'. A disclaimer at the bottom tells me it will take a while before my Bonuskaart gets to know my preferences. But can it really be that hard?

Albert Heijn sits on a gold mine of consumer data, but it seems the people in control of matching that data to products have much to learn. If people love buying Coca Cola Zero, you're not going to make them happy with your store brand diet coke. A good loyalty program requires subtlety and deep consumer insights. The easiest approach would be to come up with buyer personas. Health freaks like me, students, elderly couples, families with babies, the list goes on. Make categories like 'Asian cuisine', 'local vegetables', 'hair products for long hair', but also 'gluten free', 'vegetarian' or 'low carb'.

Because these are the things people are passionate about. The things that matter to them when they're grocery shopping. And it's okay to take an educated guess, but make sure to communicate this properly. If the e-mail would say: 'we have two offers for you. The first is one of your favourite products, and the second is something we think you might like to try', I would have been pleasantly surprised. Add a 'Do you like this personal offer'-button, and you're good to go.

Anti age cream, cold sores and baby oil

Etos, the drug store, uses a feedback system in their newsletters. And I don't want to sound mean, but they really need it, too. Their offers are even worse than Albert Heijn's. I had so many options to choose from, but to keep it to the point, I'll stick to these three:

When I signed up for the Etos loyalty app, it didn't ask me for my date of birth, a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. Age can be a touchy subject for some women, but I still feel young enough at 30. Especially young enough to raise an eyebrow at this offer for 'Anti Age 50+ skin cream'.

Apparently, about 1/3 of the population gets a cold sore every now and then. Still, I've never had one, so I found this personal offer quite peculiar. This is not a sexy, fun product to attract people to your store. It's not something just about anyone might want to try for a good price. It's medication for a very specific (and a little gross) infliction. If you're not absolutely certain that someone is going to need it, don't use it as a personal offer! In a similar vein, I got an offer for a foot calluses removal device. Even if I would need something like that, it's not the sort of purchase that makes me a loyal customer. It would be a necessity I wouldn't like to think about too much.

And last, but not least: skincare products for mommies and babies. Although I love Burt's Bees, I have not procreated and I do not plan to do so. Something Etos should know, since I didn't indicate that I am interested in anything baby-related. So yet again: you can't just sort your products by category (skin care) and brand (Burt's Bees) and let the loyalty program do the rest. The least you can do is filter out deviating products, like those targeted specifically at moms, people with cold sores or women over 50. Even better would be to ask your customers the right questions, learn their preferences and send them offers for things they might actually buy.

So step up your game, Albert Heijn and Etos, I just know you can do much, much better!