Ralph Gardner Jr: The Rewards Trap
“You have $ 6.00 in rewards to spend at your local Staples store!” Said the email. Six dollars isn’t a lot of money these days, unless you’re a tight-fisted. I proudly plead guilty to this description, although I prefer to think of the impulse in more morally defensible terms. Why let a good reward go to waste? If you spot six dollar bills on the street or even a five and one, would you ignore them? Of course not.
I am not naive enough to believe that Staples or any other merchant is offering rewards out of the goodness of the heart. I’ve heard these incentives described as loyalty programs, but it would take a lot more to earn my loyalty. Their thinking, I guess, is that once they get you into the store, you’ll find excuses to spend a lot more money than whatever the incentive amount. Also, I viewed the Staples Award less as a gift than a credit that was rightfully mine. I had returned three used printer ink cartridges, receiving two dollars for each cartridge in recycling rewards.
Still, the money burned a hole in my pocket as the expiration date for the rewards approached. What will six dollars buy you at Staples or elsewhere these days? Probably not much. Also, I didn’t feel any existential urge to buy paper clips or rubber bands. I was well stocked. However, my wife needed envelopes the size of an invitation; that was all the motivation I needed to jump in the car. I guess one should include the price of gasoline in any cost / benefit analysis, especially when the margins are so slim, but you could go crazy.
With my six dollar reward, I was able to acquire the envelopes at a 45% discount. Not bad for an hour of work, especially if you are looking for an excuse to take the rest of the day.
I want no one to think I’m a rewards junkie. Eddie Bauer recently tried to lure me in with a $ 10 “adventure reward”, apparently wanting me to equate the incentive with real fun, like rock climbing or whitewater rafting, with the need to purchase all associated equipment. I didn’t bite, reluctantly letting my reward expire. I’ve bought some cool stuff from Eddie Bauer before, including an indestructible camping water bottle and 36 inch chinos, a size that’s hard to find. Both have been greatly reduced. At other times, I visited and left empty-handed.
By the way, all of this requires being an informed consumer. I’m not saying my wife isn’t. But sometimes she comes back from a store bragging about buying a four hundred dollar sweater for twenty dollars. I must point out that just because the merchant put a price tag of $ 400 on the garment doesn’t necessarily mean that this is so. Nonetheless, bargain hunting is just one of its many stellar qualities.
Back to Eddie Bauer. Their nearest location is half an hour away by car, and there’s a good chance that after all my efforts I won’t find anything that stirs up my greed. Turns out there is a great discount liquor store next door that might help cushion the cost of the trip, especially if I fill a basket with tequila and gin, but now you’re getting into some complex math.
The best recent example I can cite of a rewards program that works well for everyone involved was when LL Bean gave me $ 10 off my next purchase last February. By the way, the ultimate challenge in playing the rewards game is to not spend more than the reward amount, no matter how small, while still getting what you want. So just before the reward ran out, indeed that day, I called the legendary Maine retailer and asked him what I could get for ten dollars? LL Bean isn’t the traditional mom and pop store, it hasn’t been in decades, but I still find their operators to be quite helpful and welcoming, and from Maine to boot. Or should I say duck boot.
The operator admitted that there was not much, if anything, in their catalog for which my reward would cover the full cost. However, it turned out that they had a sale and she had just bought tick khakis for her father and boyfriend at a fraction of the price. With my ten dollar coupon, they almost gave away the pants. So on his recommendation, I bought them.
And they’re great, allowing me to roam the woods without fear of ticks for at least the next seventy washes. This is the other, not entirely subliminal, benefit of buying an item with cash as a reward. If you are cheap, although I prefer to think of it as tax frugal, every time you put on the garment you remember you made a deal. This feeling is pretty much priceless.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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