Karen Donston's grocery cart often looks as if she's prepping for a national disaster. She might have 70 cans of Chef Boyardee pasta, or six dozen boxes of cereal (this load takes two carts), or bag upon bag of frozen vegetables. Good thing the Winnipeg mother of two is not bothered by the odd stare. The last laugh is hers: She has mastered a math game that turns those cereal boxes - and the $200 she spent on them - into a $600 flight to Kingston for a family visit, or, if she waits for the next run on frozen fries, perhaps a Caribbean cruise, all paid for with points from her Air Miles card.
Ms. Donston, a 42-year-old ad rep with a fistful of loyalty cards, is what Air Miles calls an "avid" collector, who diligently and strategically tallies the points. She knows that newly renovated grocery stores offer bonus points for a limited time, so she'll drive across the city to snag them, or to get gas at point-friendly service stations. "People only think I am crazy until they want to do it themselves," she says.
Canadians are among the most point-crazy people on the planet. We love handing over those plastic loyalty cards when we fly or pump gas, in order to rack up a points account that we can use to buy a blender or a trip to Vegas.
According to a 2009 study, the average Canadian household uses nine different loyalty programs - 50 per cent more than their American neighbours.
"There is a certain Canadian mania," says Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University. "I think it's the same genes that drive our British Columbian response to search out a litre of gas for exactly .2 of a cent less than the guy down the street."
The recession has fuelled our fetish: Last fall, one-fifth of Canadians surveyed said they were using their reward points to stretch their budgets, and companies such as Aeroplan saw more people cashing them in for Christmas gifts as opposed to fancy trips. The fastest-growing group of collectors are those between the age of 18 and 25, a demographic hit hard by the slow economy.
This trend certainly makes companies happy - loyalty programs make for loyal customers, who sometimes don't bother redeeming the points that lure them into the store, are less likely to comparison-shop, and whose choices can be easily tracked and charted every time they pull out their card.
But the appetite for points also has some governments and marketers thinking: If Canadians are willing to cross town for a handful of loyalty points, what else might we do for them? All those Air Miles points might have a value beyond vacation cruises and kitchen appliances - they might help build a greener, healthier nation.
Far beyond travel
This is Karen Shiller's list: a trip to New York this month with her 16-year-old daughter, a family flight to London booked for this fall, a Bose CD player, rain barrels and one kayak (hand-delivered to her home). These are the items she has recently "purchased" with her Aeroplan miles, which she collects by using her credit card for everything she buys, even small errands at the convenience store.
She used to stick to the travel rewards, but during the recession, Ms. Shiller, a former lawyer and English teacher at Ottawa's Algonquin College, and her partner, a real-estate developer, began using some of their 500,000-plus miles to get items they would have felt guilty about purchasing with cash.
"It became a way to give ourselves a little treat," she says. "It's like spending money, but it doesn't feel that way."
The country's fondness for loyalty programs may be, as Prof. Meredith suggests, at least partly in our genes; Canadians have traditionally been savers, an immigrant nation of bargain hunters averse to debt and big on nest eggs - although as credit-card spending escalates, those habits are quickly changing. Perhaps it dates to 1961, when Canadian Tire money - dubbed the nation's "second currency" - was introduced; roughly 90 per cent of those bills still find their way back to the store.