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Are We Missing the Points?

(this article first appeared in the november 10, 2003 issue of newsweek international)

When it comes to shopping, my friend Masako sets high standards. She's a Gucci girl, to put it bluntly. So what's she doing in this tacky, inconveniently located Tokyo shopping center? She buys bread that's too soft. And heavy books that she could easily get closer to home. "I am a slave of the point card," she explains a little sheepishly.

You see, Masako earns incentive points for every purchase. When she accumulates enough, she's awarded gift certificates at other stores in the shopping center. "I know it's pathetic," she confesses, "but I keep going back just to collect points."

I wish I could laugh. But I, too, like many Japanese, have slipped into "premium program" slavery. Retail stores and services now routinely offer a small gift, discount or store credit in exchange for points tallied on wallet-size cards. In fact, you can't buy a carton of milk or fill up your gas tank these days without gaining points of one sort or another. In addition to regular shopping points, one supermarket gives me an eco-stamp when I bring my own shopping bag. With 20 stamps I get the equivalent of Y100 in cash--not a lot of money, but it adds up. Restaurants, cafes,discount shops, dry cleaners, video-rental shops, hotels, beauty salons, cell-phone carriers, airlines--all have incentive programs. The trend has even spread to online retailing, where you collect and spend "virtual points," whatever they are. No doubt virtual points are just as addictive as real ones, except they don't fill up your handbag.

One day Masako and I confronted our addiction and came up with a self-help list for others. You are a full-fledged point-program slave if you: (1) buy something for the sole purpose of earning points, (2) feel devastated when you can't make it to a supermarket on its "double point" day, (3) insist on picking up the check only at point-issuing restaurants, (4) have no idea how much you spend to get a $10 store credit, (5) stopped going to bars that don't give you points, (6) choose an itinerary that involves a couple of stopovers instead of a direct flight in order to earn points or (7) cover your ears and start singing when somebody says, "What happens to your precious points if the company goes bust?"

Point programs have given shopping in Japan a new meaning. You are no longer just buying things. You're winning something! This logic helps ease the guilt associated with profligate spending -- especially in a nation of savers, and in an era of endless recession, no less. Taro Nakagawa, an analyst at Tokyo's Yano Research Institute, tells me that 92 percent of the Japanese consumers go back to a store to gain points. Point cards have even become the object of heated bidding on Internet auction sites. Has it all gone too far? Lately some companies have begun reconsidering incentive programs. But terminating them is risky. Ito Yokado supermarkets scrapped its non-credit point-card program in March, only to restart it two months later in response to the entreaties of desperate customers.

I'm wondering, too, whether I want to go through life as a slave. Sanae, another friend, became my hero when she purchased a DVD recorder at a discount store she'd never patronized before. She escaped point-card servitude by consciously choosing to disregard the pile of points she had accumulated elsewhere. "It felt liberating," she declared. As I've been wanting a DVD recorder myself, I got directions to Sanae's store. Trouble is, I've accumulated a lot of points at its direct competitor. "You can do it," Sanae tells me. But it's hard. It's been weeks and I'm still hesitating. Am I a free consumer or a point-card slave? I'll get back to you on that.

(c) Newsweek
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