Column October 13, 2010: I???ll make you a BOGOF you cannot refuse

I WAS buying a book from a branch of a national bookshop chain. I won’t name names, but, let’s face it, there’s only one of them left.

I waited for the crackling sexual tension to die down between the dynamic pair of assistants, and then, as the hairier one ambled forward, I handed over my book.

“Do you have a loyalty card?” the assistant asked me. Did I? I have 14 cards in my wallet and 13 of them are loyalty cards. I flicked through them.

“No, sorry,” I said. It turned out that W*terstone’s was not among the 13 retail organisations to which I am loyal.

“Would you like one?” asked the assistant. I wasn’t sure. It was not that I didn’t like the shop – I did. I have bought many books from that bookshop and have never had to return them owing to slight foxing or inadequate spine glue.

But I feared for the integrity of my wallet. One more loyalty card and the poor thing would perish, like a male X-Factor winner in January.

It made me ponder upon the nature of the loyalty card. The idea of loyalty to a large commercial organisation is insane.

For a start, how can you be loyal to both Tesco AND Sainsbury’s? Apparently you can, because I’ve got the cards to prove it. And if I had a Wa*erstone’s loyalty card, but bought the new Harry Potter for 7p in Tesco, what message does that give?

And, in any case, to whom do I owe the loyalty? If the owner of Waters*ones sells it to another group, does my loyalty transfer to the new owner or stay with the old owner?

Maybe the old owner and new owner would sit down, arguing like a divorcing couple dividing up the CDs. “Who gets Bainbridge?”/ “You have him.”/ “No, you have him.”/ “I didn’t want him in the first place. He doesn’t spend enough money and his demographic fit is a stinker. Also, he bought the new Harry Potter for 7p in Tesco.”

But I once was properly loyal to shops. When I was a child, just 10 short years ago, I lived off Greenbank Road (technically in Mossley Hill).

There was a parade of shops there, extending into Smithdown Road, and in that parade was a grocer, a butcher, a greengrocer, two sweet shops, a fish and chip shop and a newsagent. The owners and workers in those shops knew my name and I knew theirs, and the only time I bought items from other shops was when I was on holiday.

I mentioned two sweet shops. Our family only ever used one of them, and when our neighbours bought the other one, we switched loyalty. It was a wrench, and I was mortified when I had to go to the original shop and they asked me where I had been for the past few weeks. Now, that’s what loyalty means.

These cards are not loyalty cards. They are bribery cards. “Spend your cash in our shop and we will give you some of it back,” the shops are saying. In fact, it’s our money in the first place. They are charging us more for goods so that they can give us some back. That is the worst bribery in the world.

And, as such, I think that a more effective “loyalty” scheme would place employees of one supermarket outside the premises of another to deter holders of their own loyalty card from shopping around. These would be either particularly burly gentlemen, who would carry a hint of menace, or passive-aggressive women, who would sigh, not in anger but in sorrow.

If, for example, Sir Terry Leahy would like to use that idea, I will happily sell it to him for a million pounds and 400 Clubcard points.

“Excuse me, sir, I said would you like a loyalty card?” asked the assistant in Waterstone’*.

“No, thanks,” I said.

By the way, the shops of my youth are all gone now, apart from the fish and chip shop.

Apparently there is no room for a fish and chip bar in the Tesco which now sits on the other side of Greenbank Road.

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