Traditional customer loyalty programs aren't working out for either retailers or customers.

According to a survey by Accenture Strategy, retailers are wasting billions of dollars a year on loyalty programs as rewards points sit unused and consumers shift to rivals anyway. The report questioned more than 25,000 consumers around the world, including 2,500 here in the U.S. and found that 78% have turned their back on loyalty programs. Roughly 54% have switched to a different retailer or service provider within the last yest, while 18% say their feelings about brands loyalty have changed almost completely. With 3.3 billion loyalty program memberships in the U.S. alone -- or 29 per household -- there's a lot on the line.

"New 'languages of loyalty' have emerged, driven by brands experimenting with creative digital experiences, which have changed the dynamics of customer loyalty today," says Robert Wollan, senior managing director, global lead of advanced customer strategy at Accenture Strategy. "Every consumer has a natural instinct around what makes them 'stick' to a brand. The traditional 'low price' and 'reliable service' mechanics are no longer as effective at driving loyalty."

What do consumers want in exchange for their loyalty? Lots and lots of attention. Roughly 59% want personalized discouts, gift cards and special offers. Another 41% want to customixe the whole experience: 51% want to be reached through their preferred channels of communication, 81% want brands to be there when they need them (and leave them alone when they don't) and 85% want their personal information kept private.

However, they aren't always exactly clear how they want to accomplish this. About 44% of consumers want brands to seek their input on products and services, with 41% looking for new experiences, products and services. Another 33% say they'd be loyal to brands that gave them "multi-sensory" experiences like virtual reality or augmented reality -- which raises questions about the fickle nature of a consumer market that vows "loyalty" to unproven tech.

In fact, "fickle" and "easily swayed" might be great ways for retailers to define their "loyal" customer base. These are people who'd be "loyal" to brand because it partnered with celebrities (23%) or, failing that, "social influencers" like YouTubers and recently retired Vine stars (also 23%). Then again, 42% will be loyal to whatever retailer or company their freinds or family are loyal to, while 37% will be loyal to brands that actively support causes they like. Yes, "loyal" consumers are basically pageant contestants, and they certainly want to be rewarded as such.

About 39% want to use their loyalty points or rewards with other providers, while 51% would stay loyal if they were offered "cutting edge" products and services. Oh, and 8% don't want brands to badger them for their loyalty, while 26% want to be adored by brands in exchange for loyalty?

So why should brands worry about these flakes? Because 55% would recommend brands that jump through all those hoops to family and friends, while 43% would increase the amount of business they do with those brands -- with a whopping 66% spending more on the brands they love.

"Organizations need to understand the loyalty languages of their most profitable customers and implement the optimal mix to ensure they're delivering the experiences that drive advocacy, retention and growth," says Kevin Quiring, managing director of advanced customer strategy, for Accenture Strategy. "An appetite for extra-ordinary, multi-sensory experiences, hyper-personalization and co-creation, are changing consumer dynamics around loyalty and forcing brands and organizations to shift their approaches and programs."

As it stands now, a whole lot of loyalty programs are piles of hot, debt-building garbage. In a survey of 100 retailers in the U.S. by CreditCards.com, the average annual percentage rate on store credit cards cards is 23.84% -- or nearly double the Federal Reserve's 12.41% average for all credit cards. Not only that, but only half of the cards offer a sign-up rewards deal or purchase discount -- with only 13 out of 100 exceeding $25 in rewards for a $200 purchase. Best Buy's 10% sign-up bonus would be worth $100 to someone who buys a $1,000 television, but only if the cardholder pays the entire bill before interest kicks in.

"With their outrageously high APRs, most consumers would be wise to steer clear of these cards unless they're 100 percent certain they can pay their balance off every single month," said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "And even then, there are plenty of general-purpose credit cards with better sign-up bonuses."

If the only thing a loyalty program can offer a consumer is debt, the typical U.S. consumer can't afford it. By the third quarter of 2016, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, total U.S. credit card debt hit $747 billion (up $33 billion from a year earlier). The Federal Reserve put total revolving debt at $981.3 billion in October, up 2.9% from a year earlier despite interest rates rising from an average 12.22% to 12.51% during that time.

According to credit statistics and analysis site WalletHub, the average household with credit card debt now owes $7,941 -- or just $523 less than WalletHub considers unsustainable for a median household income of little less than $52,000. Meanwhile, according to finance site NerdWallet, the average household with revolving credit card debt carried a balance of $6,885 as of June 2016 and paid $1,292 in interest, assuming an annual percentage rate of 18.76%. However, households that bring in more than $157,479 per year pay almost four times more in credit card interest than households that make less than $21,432.

A Fed rate hike in December only made retail card APRs more unreasonable. Card issuers jacked up credit card APR by 18 basis points before the Fed even raised its interest rate, then elevated APRs another 13 basis points after the fact. By WalletHub's estimates, the Fed's interest rate increase will cost consumers roughly $1.4 billion in additional credit card finance charges, while average U.S. interest from revolving debt increases to $1,309

Retailers haven't exactly bent over backwards to make their card-based rewards programs more enticing, either. Ten retailers dropped signup offers for new cardholders last year, while only 13 offer low-to-no interest introductory rates. Just 29 retail cards overall are equipped with chips instead of magnetic stripes -- making them far more vulnerable to fraud. However, lower credit limits around $500 or so, higher-risk applicants and, in many cases variable APRs tied to the prime rate make store cards far more accessible. So does the fact that loyal customers get more out of the card than the average customer. Meijer's credit card, for example offers gas discounts, $10 back for every $750 spent in stores and access to additional cardholder-exclusive saving events throughout the year.

That has a disproportionate effect on low-income shoppers. When a worker who makes $20,000 a year owes $3,611 in credit card debt, that's 18% of their annual income. When a household making $150,000 a year has $10,036 in credit card debt, that's less than 7% of its income. The self-employed are acutely aware of how rough revolving credit card debt can be: households led by self-employed individuals spend $1,631 in credit card interest annually, while heads of household who work for someone else pay only $1,211 to finance their credit card debt each year.

"With 66% of U.S. consumers spending more with the brands they love, organizations that stick to traditional approaches and don't explore the new drivers influencing loyalty risk draining profitability and pushing customers away - even when they have the best intentions or are following their historical playbook," Wollan says. "It's time for organizations to take a fresh look at loyalty."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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