Swiping a rewards card at the checkout for coveted loyalty program points has become such a standard practice that it now only feels weird when we forget to do so, or aren't reminded to by a helpful cashier.
Almost 80 per cent of Australians are members of at least one loyalty scheme, according to the 2019 Loyalty & Reward Co report, commissioned by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
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There are two major rewards alliances currently in Australia: Flybuys and Everyday Rewards.
Many other leading retailers like IGA and Myer have their own rewards programs, while discount supermarket chain Aldi does not, instead aiming to build customer loyalty with low prices.
Are there real rewards?
The most savvy customers in Australia are maximising their loyalty program membership benefits and recouping big dollars in their quest to save as much money as possible.
Perhaps best illustrating how beneficial maximising your rewards program can be is Flybuys 50, a group of Australia's top Flybuys points earners.
From "free" flights to microwaves and a range of other goods, services and experiences, there are savings and benefits to be had if you diligently dedicate your time and energy, as these smart spenders have done.
Common practices among the Flybuys 50 include using a supermarket-linked credit card and combining it with insurance products, and opting to spend with partner companies.
Maximise your benefits
A key to unlocking benefits of loyalty schemes as fast as possible is "stacking" or building up points, which can be done by:
Getting all family members involved
Completing surveys on the Flybuys website
Activating all the offers sent to your account via email or in-app
Doing a big shop when there are bonus points available
Collecting points on travel spends
Downloading and using any relevant rewards program apps
Reducing spending frequency so that you do more "big spends"
A trade-off for your rewards scheme membership is your "spend data", which means retailers can access information about what you buy, when you buy it, plus how often and how much of it.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, says Gary Mortimer, professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the QUT Business School.
"Ultimately, when it comes down to food shopping, we are not necessarily loyal to any supermarket or food store," Mortimer told Yahoo Finance.
Research showed that, over a fortnight, the majority of shoppers would generally shop across at least two, if not three, brands of retailer or supermarket in order to save money and find specials.
"So, the idea of a loyalty card that you are only loyal to one supermarket is probably not entirely correct," Mortimer said.
"There's nothing stopping a shopper having a Flybuys card and an Everyday Rewards card and taking advantage of both retailers' offers.
"However, in saying that, it is ultimately money for nothing; it costs nothing to enrol in these schemes."
It should be noted that Woolworths also has the Everyday Extra plan costing $7 per month or $59 per year for additional perks, but there are many advocates online happily absorbing the extra cost given the amount of points and rewards returned to offset this.
"Yes, you give away some of your data, as in your purchase data, but in return you get points. But not just points, you also get discounts," Mortimer said.
"Many plans, or loyalty programs like Woolworths, will give you $10 cash back at some point, but supermarket retailers will certainly use that data, in order to more effectively target you with relevant offers, so there is a bit of a 'quid pro quo'. And that's sort of the relationship that exists.
"The other thing is that these are sent to you offering great discounts that you may not get if you are not a particular member of a loyalty program."
Asked if rewards schemes encouraged customers to spend more on normally needless products, Mortimer replied: "I don’t think being in a loyalty program is going to make you buy products that you don't particularly want.
"I'd imagine even the most active user is not going to go out and buy four or five tubs of laundry detergent in order to maximise points. But they'll certainly switch brands to maximise points if they are running out of laundry detergent."
Jana Bowden, professor of marketing and a consumer behaviour expert at Macquarie University Business School, told Yahoo Finance loyalty schemes were a practical way for families to make savings as the cost of living soared.
"With the cost-of-living crisis hitting consumers hard, and seemingly no relief in sight, a lot of Aussies are looking for ways to save money," Bowden said.
"One way consumers save at the supermarket checkout is through signing up to supermarket loyalty programs, with 4 in 5 Aussies belonging to Woolworths and Coles' programs.
"Free to sign up to, there is really no downside to consumers joining the programs."
Knowledge is power
Bowden explained that consumers should familiarise themselves with all the conditions and available perks of loyalty programs to get the most out of them.
"It's all about two things: knowing what you are singing up to, and why the brand is offering the program, as well as knowing how you can use these programs to maximise the value from them," she said.
"Loyalty programs are strategic tools. They also enable the supermarkets to access and harvest your spend data to target you more effectively.
"If you know this, if you are comfortable as a consumer handing over your data and information, if you are willing to be marketed to and if you know you are savvy enough to use the program to your benefit, then there's no reason not to sign up to a loyalty program."
Bowden highlighted the ways shoppers were maximising the benefits of loyalty schemes.
"Savvy shoppers can concentrate their weekly shop at one of the supermarkets so that they can accumulate points and apply these for discounts or rewards," she said.
"The majority of consumers, 62 per cent, use their points to claim cashback rewards on their weekly shop.
"Understanding how the loyalty offer algorithms work can help consumers to take greater advantage of the program's benefits. For example, holding off on some specific product purchases can lead the loyalty algorithm to generate even better points offers on the same products at a later date. Clued-in shoppers who have time can game the system in this way."
"Consumers also use their points to collect frequent flyer points, with 16 per cent of consumers cashing points in for flights. Social media is rife with stories of smart shoppers who have used hundreds of thousands of points to fund international trips."
In terms of risks associated with loyalty schemes, Bowden said overspending could occur when consumers chased perks through certain promotions.
"But there is a buyer beware here," she said.
"Whilst the kids collector programs are fun for families, spending in order to collect these items can lead to overspending. Data shows these deals increase basket size sales for the supermarkets as well as transaction frequency."
Here are some useful tips to ensure you're getting all the rewards possible from your loyalty program:
Sign up to a loyalty program if you know you can get clear benefits from it
Always look to buy what you need. Stick to that game plan
Search out deals on the products that you do buy and buy when the offer is worth it
Bulk buy and stock up if the deal is good enough that you will be ahead in the long run
Research deals across supermarkets so you know you are getting bang for your buck
If you have points, track them and use them – 7 per cent of Aussies let them go to waste, which can make signing up to the loyalty program pointless
Beware of scammers
While building up points to spend when you really need them is a preferred strategy for many customers, it's also appealing to scammers.
Recently, Woolworths Everyday Rewards members claimed their accounts had been hacked and their points were stolen, but Woolies denied there had been a security breach.
Instead, the retailer said, fraudsters scammed members out of their login details in order to access their accounts.
With this in mind, remember to always keep your loyalty account secure, especially if you're saving up points.