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Market's Discounts Were Not in the Cards

April 06, 1999|MELINDA FULMER, food and agriculture writer

Frequent-shopper programs may be a hit at most mainstream grocery chains, but to customers of Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, the discount cards are more of a nuisance than a perk.

In a company newsletter, the 67-store natural foods chain said it is discontinuing its "Wild Shopper Card" on Wednesday because of negative customer feedback.

In a recent survey, many customers said they were either disappointed by the perks offered in the program, which was launched at the end of 1997, or felt the discount program didn't fit Wild Oats' hip, upscale atmosphere. So the company is asking members to turn in the cards (for recycling, of course) and it will mail coupons instead.

"If at first you don't succeed . . . quit before you ruin what you've got," Wild Oats Chief Executive Mike Gilliland said in a statement, quoting W.C. Fields.

But marketing experts caution that specialty chains such as Wild Oats shouldn't be so quick to give up on the idea. As supermarkets continue to move into natural foods and supplements, finding ways to build customer loyalty will become increasingly important.

"If I were them, I'd say how can I create a program that identifies my most-valuable customers, makes them feel special, and binds them to me in a way that keeps them from buying our stuff elsewhere," said Richard Barlow, a Cincinnati-based consultant and publisher of the Frequency Marketing newsletter. Instead of handing out cents-off coupons, Barlow said grocery chains should focus on delivering special treatment to these shoppers, giving them free items in the same way airlines award frequent fliers cabin upgrades and free flights.

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