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Credit-Freeing Currency: How Nordstrom Rewards Is Benefitting From Ditching The Card

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, the old saying goes. But if you’re shopping at Nordstrom these days, you only have to ask how to pay, and you will be afforded rich rewards.

Close to a year after the Seattle-based retailer changed its Nordstrom Rewards program so members could earn points regardless of how they pay, the numbers are in, and they’re impressive. The change, which means customer no longer have to register for a Nordstrom credit card to earn points toward rewards, resulted in 3.7 million new memberships, escalating total enrollment to 7.8 million active members.

At the same time, the costs associated with Nordstrom Rewards are slightly down. According to the company’s annual report, program expenses declined to $162 million in 2016 from $164 million in 2015. In 2014, costs were $149 million. Revenue advanced to $15.5 billion in fiscal 2016 from $14.1 in 2015.

The takeaway: Giving loyalty members the freedom to choose how to pay can contribute to topline growth and customer engagement — and it can also serve to promote branded credit cards. Let’s explore how other merchants benefit, and why.

Bloomingdale’s, Kohl’s Also Tender-Neutral

Nordstrom is among good company in expanding its rewards to all forms of payment methods. Bloomingdale’s, Kohl’s and others also have made this transformation.

Bloomingdale’s, the luxury brand operated by Macy’s, in 2012 transitioned to the tender-neutral Loyallist program, which does not require members to sign up for a store credit card. Similarly, Kohl’s in late 2014 introduced Yes2You Rewards, which gives members one point for every dollar they spend, regardless of how they pay, including through Apple Pay.

A common feature among many of these programs is that while they have opened up to other methods of payment, they continue to promote and underscore the added value of having a credit card. In essence, by expanding the pool of members, they are creating an expanded audience of potential credit card holders.

Bloomingdale’s, for example, issues three points for every dollar spent using its credit card. Kohl’s sends its credit card holders 12 discounts a year, compared with eight for non-cardholding members. And Nordstrom provides additional benefits to customers who participate in its loyalty program through store and debit cards. These include reimbursements for alterations, Personal Triple Points days, shopping and fashion events and early access to its popular Anniversary Sale.

Multiple Reasons For Multi-Tendering

In adopting a multi-tender program, Nordstrom, like Bloomingdale’s and others, recognizes the value of capturing not only those customers who use its credit card but also those who prefer to use other forms of payment. This benefits the brand, and shoppers, in many ways:

  • Value equation: Multi-tender rewards programs extend the value proposition for retailers because they capture more customer data. It’s also more accurate data since shoppers want to ensure their information is up to date in order to receive rewards and other benefits. Retailers can use these insights to provide higher levels of service and improved communications in return.
  • Engagement: Because customers are not required to register for a credit card, multi-tender programs are accessible to a broader number of people, ratcheting up participation. And they can do so among lucrative market segments. Just 33% of consumers between the ages of 18 and 29 have a credit card, according to Bankrate’s Money Pulse Survey, conducted in 2016. That compares with 55% credit card ownership among those between the ages of 30 and 49. Retailers that rely strictly on credit loyalty programs may not be fully engaging their younger customers, something that they should consider given the decades of shopping they have ahead of them and the ability to influence those purchases (and later credit applications).
  • More spending options: Give people more ways to pay and earn rewards and they’ll find more reasons to spend with the brand. In most cases, members of multi-tender retail rewards programs generate 70% to 90% of brand revenue, according to Kobie Marketing research.
  • Easy-pleasy: By extending payment options, retailers such as Nordstrom are recognizing the advantage, and increasing preferences for, mobile wallets. With so many plastic cards issued (credit cards and loyalty cards), consumers are opting for more efficient ways to carry around all those numbers. Mobile phone apps do the trick.

With virtually every retailer offering a rewards program today, standing apart requires greater ease, value and availability. I expect more retailers that never issued reward-based credit cards, such as supermarkets and drug stores, to do the reverse of Nordstrom, and explore issuing credit cards with enriched rewards. Kroger is already doing so.

The trick, of course, is in knowing one’s best customers. If the retailer still has to ask, then it probably can’t afford to take chances.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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