Blogs & Comment

Loblaws' new “PC Plus” loyalty program is really a game in disguise

"Gamification" comes with risks.

This week Loblaws rolled out a new digital reward program, PC Plus. The scheme offers a number of innovations, both for Loblaws and for customers, such as cutting back on the cost and waste of paper flyers and offering customized deals that better match up with shoppers’ actual buying habits.

But PC Plus is actually more than another loyalty program or an email version of the weekly store flyer; it’s a prime example of mobile, social gamification working today for a major Canadian company.

Gamification is a trendy concept, but it’s not just a buzzword: Foursquare badges and Farmville fertilizer are examples, but so are Air Canada’s frequent flyer status levels, Shoppers Drug Mart Optimum points, and Canadian Tire money. Companies of all kinds are finding ways to put the structures and rules of games to work in business. Habit RPG, with its tagline “Gamify Your Life”, will even let you turn your to-do list into a competition.

And so while Loblaws spent much time touting how their new digital platform will reduce flyer demand, that’s not its main purpose. PC Plus merges social media and a loyalty program into a super-gamified system that they hope will keep customers coming back for more.

pc-plus-cardBut while a more social, addictive, and data-driven smartphone app can offer many more customer insights for Loblaws, a deeper integration in customers’ lives brings pitfalls as well. There are two important considerations for firms implementing gamified social media and loyalty programs. The first is responsible data collection. The second is the system’s ability to meet the demand for diverse rewards.

Responsible data collection

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even if it is Blue Menu.

The PC Plus app has already received complaints about the default settings for data collection. Similarly, Target came under scrutiny for its data-mining use to predict a purchaser’s pregnancy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with retailers collecting their customer’s shopping habits, particularly given the changing attitudes younger generations hold in regards to privacy. It helps companies to predict a customer’s interests in order to optimize the relevant deal information it provides. But firms should be as transparent as possible about what data they are collecting, and allow customers to contour settings to meet comfort levels. Also, as a technical point, apps that provide different data collection settings should respect the settings selected. Apps that allow users to select different information sharing settings then refuse to download properly without a full data divulge are misleading.

Moreover, companies should only request as much information as is relevant to improving customer service. Apps should not be a backdoor route to reduce market research costs.

Gratify diverse customer needs

The other important consideration is whether or not a retailer’s rewards structure makes sense for a consumer as an individual player. Most loyalty programs tend heavily toward prizes, but not everyone is motivated by a payout. Some sign up to a gamified system for entertainment, some for social interaction, some simply for the direct competition of a leaderboard or other status equivalency.


Screenshot from the PC Plus announcement video

Just as companies break down their monolithic customer base into smaller demographics and psychographics, so should they recognize and respect different types of game players.

Often customers who don’t share a neighbour or co-worker’s enthusiasm for a particular loyalty program or social media platform feel like they’re misunderstanding or missing out on some aspect of the system. Not everyone is going to do a touchdown celebration dance when they become the Foursquare mayor of their local coffee shop. Lack of enthusiasm most likely stems from a disconnect between an individual’s motivations and the program’s rewards provided. Never assume that your customers don’t get your game. It’s likely that your game doesn’t get them.

In short, the proliferation of digital rewards programs is inevitable. Transparency about data collection and respect for customers’ differing privacy and reward needs will ensure that both companies and customers can be winners.

Denise Brunsdon is a social media consultant and published academic on digital communications trends. You can connect with her for little to no reward at: @Brunsdon & LinkedIn