Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Why Do Canadians Love Consumer Loyalty Programs?
When I moved here in 2004, one thing I did not anticipate about Life In Canada was the ubiquity of consumer loyalty programs. As Canadians well know, these fall into two categories: there is the Mother Of All Loyalty Programs, the so-called "Air Miles" program, and then there are the zillions of smaller ones, like Canadian Tire Dollars, Shoppers' Drug Mart Optimum cards, and endless coffee punch cards. My university eateries even have a punch card loyalty program for soup.
I generally don't participate in consumer loyalty programs. I'd like to say this for high-minded reasons related to surveillance and resistance, and sure, that's part of it, but the real reason is that I'm trying to get on with my fucking life. I don't know how people have the patience and mental energy to carry around all these cards and fish them out of their wallets at the appropriate moment, never mind waiting for every other patron in front of them to do the same. Am I the only person who wants to die when I'm behind seven people in the LCBO line and the cashier says "Air Miles"? and the customer is like 'Oh ... yeah ... uh ... wait ... I can't ... um ... hold on ... can you do it with my phone number?"
I know there are loyalty programs in the US, and people use them at the grocery store, but somehow the whole thing takes on a different texture here. If you're not Canadian, you might not appreciate the way loyalty programs are such a centrality of life here.
The "Air Miles" program sounds like something to do with frequent flyer miles -- and when I first moved here I kept confusing it with "Aeroplan," which is the actual miles program associated with Air Canada. But AirMiles is everything. You get points on different kinds of purchases and then you spend them on all kinds of things.
News and controversy about loyalty programs regularly feature on the front news page of the CBC webpage, and in recent years the rewards of Air Miles have been big news. It used to be that Air Miles didn't expire, and then in 2016 it was announced that they would, so people would lose miles received before 2012. People were enraged, and the company backed down. Then the federal government stepped in and said that loyalty programs can't have expiration dates. The Air Miles people were also accused of shenanigans, where you could only see the big rewards if you didn't have enough points for them, and later they disappeared. Then last year people started stealing Optimum points. I don't know how this works, but it's like you're racking up points at home in Sastaktoon and someone goes and spends your points in Quebec.
This corner of Canadian culture gives me mixed feelings. For one thing, seeing news stories like "Thieves steal millions of PC Optimum points" as headline news, I often go through a two-step emotional response. First, I feel a wash of gratitude, that I am lucky enough to live in a country so peaceful and prosperous that "Thieves steal loyalty program points" is big-time, national news. But then, there are newsworthy things happening in Canada, and sometimes I learn about Canadian news related to Indigenous people or foreign policy in The Guardian. So I'm like, Wait, why wasn't this covered at home? Why are we reading about loyalty points?
More fundamentally, I'm ambivalent about the kind of sensible Canadian frugality that seems to motivate the careful, ongoing, attentive use of loyalty programs. Canadian frugality is so different from American profligacy. These are, I think, deeply rooted cultural differences. Go to Buffalo and you'll see block after block of huge, beautiful Victorian houses, made of wood, with high ceilings. Cross into Ontario, and you'll see houses made of brick, with small, cozy living rooms, perfect for keeping warm in a cold climate. Even in the late 1800s, Americans were thinking Go Big Or Go Home.
I admire Canadian frugality -- it is probably linked to all kinds of other wonderful Canadian qualities like generosity and good sense -- but I cannot see myself reflected in it. I know that by punching 12 punches in a card I can get a free cup of coffee, but I just don't care. Sure, at this point I'm lucky to make enough money that I can just pay for the extra cup, but honestly I wasn't frugal in this way when I was a waitress and a grad student and trying to help my poor, widowed mother. I'd rather ratchet down my living standard altogether, or go without the extra cup of coffee, than attend to the ways that I can incrementally make things better by paying careful attention over time.
My reluctance to participate in loyalty programs is a source of ongoing interpersonal awkwardness for me, especially buying coffee on campus. The efficient and helpful people who work in food services here are always like "Coffee card?" and I'm like "No, thank you," and sometimes they ask "Why not?" and I try to explain "I can't handle keeping track of all those cards" -- and then we look at each other with mutual misunderstanding. It always reminds me of when an American colleague came to visit our Department, and went to buy wine at the LCBO, and the cashier said, "Air Miles"? And she, befuddled by what this could mean, answered "Sorry, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not even from this country."