So your favorite business now has a loyalty program and probably a fancy app that claims to make your life that much easier — or save you money. For some consumers, it’s a no-brainer, just one more card in their wallets or app on their devices. But maybe you’re like me and wonder: “Is it worth it?”
Bryan K. Chavez, my colleague at the website Living on the Cheap, is a member of numerous loyalty programs. He says the decision to join depends on your interests. If it’s a place where you would spend money anyway, it makes sense to create an account. “You want to ensure a program is easy to use, as well as really saves you money or gives you cash back,” he says.
Here are some popular national retail loyalty programs, along with tips from ardent fans for maximizing their benefits. There are many retailers with similar programs; think of this as a guide for evaluating others you may be considering, too. (And no, I didn’t include fast-food chains or restaurants. That’s another story for another time.)
How it works: Earn stars based on the amount spent on eligible purchases. Redeem stars for free food, drinks or merchandise. Members who pay with a registered, preloaded Starbucks card earn two stars per $1. Those who pay with a credit or debit card earn one star per $1. Earn bonus stars on Double Star Days and by participating in bonus star challenges.
Insider tip: “Starbucks prices differ by location, so I save up and redeem my rewards at more expensive places, such as an airport, to get the biggest bang for my buck,” says Kyle Elliott, a Starbucks fan in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Bonus tip: When redeeming stars for free food or drinks, choose the largest size with add-ons, Chavez says. “I always go for the salads, which are roughly $9, rather than a $5 or $6 sandwich,” he says. “Using rewards is the time to splurge on the most expensive items on the menu.”
Where to sign up: Online or on the Starbucks app.
How it works: Earn 1 percent Walgreens Cash on purchases storewide and 5 percent on Walgreens-branded products. Redeem Walgreens Cash rewards at checkout. Save more with only-for-you deals and in-app paperless coupons. Earn bonus rewards for achieving health goals.
Insider tip: At checkout, get any extra coupons that print out with your receipt. These may include Register Rewards: rebates of various dollar amounts that you can apply to your next purchase, or bonus offers to earn extra points if you spend a minimum amount or buy specific products.
Where to sign up: Online, in person or on the Walgreens app.
CVS Pharmacy ExtraCare
How it works: Receive 2 percent back on nearly every purchase made in store or online in the form of ExtraBucks. These are printed on the bottom of your paper receipt and accessible via the app. Earn more rewards through weekly promotions. ExtraBucks can be used to buy almost anything in the store.
Insider tip: Always stop at the in-store Coupon Center. Scan your card or enter your phone number at the kiosk for extra coupons and rewards, says Kimberli Fancher of Waxhaw, N.C.
Bonus tip: Pay attention to the bottom of your receipts. You never know what additional coupons may appear.
Where to sign up: Online, in person or on the CVS app.
How it works: For every eligible purchase, earn 1 percent to redeem at Target later. Members also receive access to special offers, and the in-app bar-code reader helps you scan items for prices and in-store availability. You can also use the app to place orders for curbside or in-store pickup.
Insider tip: Use the app to scan in-store items. It will note whether the item is on sale online. If so, show the cashier, who will price-match at the register.
Bonus tip: Scroll down to “Offers For You” each time you open the app. “Because they are based on your shopping history, these bonus deals are usually spot-on,” says Renee Cook, a mother of four in Omaha.
Where to sign up: Online, in person or on the Target app.
Kroger Shoppers Card
(Note: Kroger operates under various brands across the country, including Dillons, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, Smith’s and Harris Teeter. Program specifics are similar at each.)
How it works: Earn one fuel point for each $1 spent on most groceries and two fuel points for each $1 spent on most gift cards. Every 100 fuel points equals 10 cents off per gallon at Kroger fuel centers and participating Shell locations. You can redeem up to 1,000 fuel points each fill-up for $1 off per gallon. In addition, members receive extra discounts on select products, personalized offers and digital coupons.
Insider tip: “When we have $1 off per gallon, my husband and I try to let our tanks get as close to empty as possible and fill both cars at the same time,” says Kroger shopper Angie Batten of Charlottesville.
Bonus tip: Chavez says to watch for dates (usually weekends) when the store offers quadruple fuel points for buying gift cards you would use anyway, such as Amazon or local restaurants and retailers.
Where to sign up: Online, in person or on the Kroger app.
Nordstrom's Nordy Club
How it works: Earn one point for every $1 spent. Points are converted to Nordstrom Notes, which can be redeemed toward any purchase at Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack. Members receive free basic alterations and first access to exclusive brand launches. Those who spend more annually and achieve higher status — Insider, Influencer, Ambassador — receive personal bonus-point days and can be first to shop clear-the-rack sales.
Insider tip: Nordstrom Notes usually expire within a year. To bank them, says Lyn Schaffer, a frequent Nordstrom shopper in Denver, transfer the Notes to Nordstrom gift cards, which never expire.
Where to sign up: Online, in person or on the Nordstrom app.
Sephora's Beauty Insider
How it works: Earn one point per $1 spent. Every 500 points equals $10 off a qualifying purchase. On designated days, earn two or four times the points on purchases. Other benefits include seasonal savings events, free samples and birthday gifts, and extra points for services.
Insider tip: “Check with Sephora clerks when you enter the store. They will always alert you to any Insider sales or bonuses,” Schaffer says.
Where to sign up: Online or on the Sephora app.
Ulta's Ultamate Rewards
How it works: Earn one point for every $1 spent. Redeem points on anything in stores, including services. Extra goodies are available on member appreciation days. Members receive double points during their birthday month, as well as a gift and $10 off a service coupon. Shoppers receive Platinum status after spending $500 and Diamond status after $1,200. These members receive more points per dollar spent, as well as exclusive deals, gifts, rewards and coupons.
Insider tip: Ulta always offers members a gift with purchases. If you know you’re going to buy something, wait until Wednesdays, when stores typically hold a “Beauty Break” and you receive a higher-value gift (typically multiple products) with a minimum purchase, says Diamond-level member Shandi Messmer.
Where to sign up: Online or on the Ulta app.