As loyalty wars escalate…Acarta aims to carve card niche

HBC's rejection of the Air Miles platform is not surprising to someone like retail consultant Steve Boase, with J.C. Williams Group. While consumers are happy to have retailers involved in coalition programs - thus reducing the need to clutter up their wallets with individual cards - retailers, worried about brand dilution, often balk at the notion of sharing their space with other retailers that might not even share the same audience. While giants like HBC and Shoppers Drug Mart can afford to stand alone, many retailers out there are not in that position. That doesn't mean they don't try - it just means that their cards might not be achieving any business goals. In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that many retail loyalty cards - think of those pieces of cardboard - are just as often collecting dust at a consumer's home or lost at the bottom of a purse or wallet.

HBC’s rejection of the Air Miles platform is not surprising to someone like retail consultant Steve Boase, with J.C. Williams Group. While consumers are happy to have retailers involved in coalition programs – thus reducing the need to clutter up their wallets with individual cards – retailers, worried about brand dilution, often balk at the notion of sharing their space with other retailers that might not even share the same audience. While giants like HBC and Shoppers Drug Mart can afford to stand alone, many retailers out there are not in that position. That doesn’t mean they don’t try – it just means that their cards might not be achieving any business goals. In fact, anecdotal evidence shows that many retail loyalty cards – think of those pieces of cardboard – are just as often collecting dust at a consumer’s home or lost at the bottom of a purse or wallet.

So is it Air Miles, Aeroplan or bust?

Not if Mike Bradley, managing director of Acarta, has his way. Acarta is a coalition program, still in development, that might be best described as a cross between Air Miles and a debit card.

It basically offers a one-card solution to any number of retailers, each of whom would still run its own loyalty programs in any way it chose. The card simply tracks the program for them.

‘We looked at the benefits of both proprietary programs and programs like Air Miles,’ he says. ‘And we thought that there was a strong position in the middle of the market.’

Bradley, who comes from the electronic banking industry, says that the card would offer retailers improved participation without the cost of managing and handling cards. The business model is based on debit cards, where each retailer would pay user fees to be part of the program.

‘We look to take a lot of the upfront investment off the shoulders of the retailer so it won’t cost them a lot to launch their own program,’ he says.

The ‘best of both worlds’ approach would have easy, in-store sign-up at any of the participating retailers. Once a consumer is signed up, the card could be activated at any number of participating retailers. Consumers could track their points online, through a computer or wireless device (particularly handy when standing at a checkout, according to Bradley). Again, points could be tallied in any number of ways – that’s up to each retailer. And retailers could form cross-promotional partnerships within the coalition, but there’s no requirement to do so.

The Acarta card also addresses a basic principle, often neglected in loyalty programs, according to Bradley – keep the customer coming back. ‘We think it’s important for retailers to offer their own product as rewards,’ he says. ‘Rewards should be targeted at earning future business with the consumer.’

Bradley admits there’s always going to be a concern over on-card branding. ‘A lot of retailers see a high degree of value in seeing their brand in the consumer’s wallet,’ he says. But, he adds, a branded card is meaningless if it’s lost in someone’s sock drawer. ‘The burden of carrying cards is getting bigger and bigger.’

Acarta is in its own marketing stage, pitching the idea to a number of possible partners. Does the country need another loyalty consortium? So far, there are no takers, but the company is clearly hoping to sign partners and build momentum. Bradley will not provide a launch date except to say that it will happen in months, rather than years.

Note: Bradley came out as the ultimate loyalty program junkie, with 16 cards – both electronic and paper – in his wallet. WC