We’re Like Rats in a Maze

image via Futurity.com

What’s dangling from your keyring?

Buy ten coffees and get one free.
Or pints of frozen yogurt, bakery muffins, or home-delivered pizza.
If you’re like most of us, you’ve got 14 loyalty cards and tags clipped to your keys or stuffed in your wallet, although just around half of them are ever used.

Shopper loyalty cards: do you use them, or do they use you?

Researchers have observed an interesting behavior in the classic psychology lab study of rats racing through a maze to get to the cheese: the closer the rats get to the food, the faster they run. And we’re a lot like those rats; the closer we are to a goal, the harder we will try to get there. Give us a coffee shop card that needs 10 stamps to earn a free cup, and we’ll get those last few stamps a lot faster than the first ones. A nearly-full card actually gets us to buy coffee more frequently.

The card issuers know that 10 stamps is just right for minor purchases. We perceive value with each stamp, and have tangible proof that we’re nearing the goal, which is important if we are going to know when to step on the gas and speed our way to the freebie.

And what about the shops that give a head start with a pre-existing ‘bonus’ stamp or two? Don’t mistake it for generosity. Studies show that a 12-stamp card with a 2-stamp head start is filled even faster than a 10-stamp card. We know that the dividend is identical–we still need to buy 10 cups of coffee to get the free one– but look at the progress we’re making! That first purchase gets us 3 stamps toward the 12; we’re already a quarter of the way there! The illusion that the goal is closer has us speeding toward that free cup even sooner than we would with a ‘regular’ card.

What’s in store:

Loyalty cards are going cardless. There are mobile apps like Cardstar and Keyring that let you scan all your cards into a smartphone or iPad. Location-based applications like Loopt and Foursquare are also building loyalty card features onto their platforms. Some retailers like Starbucks have already released their own cell phone loyalty cards, with many more on the way.

That should keep us running through the maze.


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2 Responses to We’re Like Rats in a Maze

  1. Thanks for this article, very well explained and easy to follow. Thanks

  2. Eek! The maze, the maze… And here we are, getting treated like RATS! Sigh. How ’bout just stopping somewhere when we need to, and paying a reasonable price?! If the product is something that fills a need we have, then (in theory at least) we shouldn’t need the extra incentive/cell phone app/loyalty card… Will companies stop at nothing to make an extra buck? I’m losing my respect for these businesses!

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