Recently, a supermarket that we use fairly regularly (it’s the closest one to our house, after all) started a ‘rewards’ program that I confess I don’t fully understand (one can use either a credit card, a generic plastic card or a phone app to collect ‘points’ AND it requires email and a web browser so it’s a little more complicated than most). There are two of us but there’s no particular need to have two piles of points so one day I phoned them to try and get all of ‘mine’ to funnel into Ms. Rose’s account. It turns out that this is harder than one might think; the evidence suggests that this scenario was never contemplated when the program was being designed. While listening to painful (and painfully loud) Muzak I thought back to another time that I tried to do the same thing.
The usual preamble: I’ve tried — with limited success — to remember my first ‘rewards’ program. While I’m not sure what it was, I’m moderately sure that it was a small one, run by a store for their own purposes. It might have been from a smallish bookstore in Toronto, one of my regular stops when I’m there. I imagine the exchange probably went something like this: “Do you have our card?” “Huh?” “Our loyalty card.” “Huh?” “If you buy X books, the X+1st is free.” “Huh?”
Eventually I sort of figured out the concept and so began The Accumulation. Cards for books. Cards for coffee. Cards for stuffed monkeys. Cards for, well, everything. Before long my wallet was bulging, not with cash, but with cards. Frankly, I’d rather have the cash but at least they were simple and generally worked as expected without visits from the Surprise Party department. (Robert Heinlein once said — paraphrasing another writer — that all military bureaucracies contain at least three departments: a Surprise Party Department, a Practical Joke Department and a Fairy Godmother Department. The first two process most matters as the third is very small; the Fairy Godmother Department is one elderly female GS-5 clerk usually out on sick leave. I would claim that it’s not just military bureaucracies; it’s any organization larger than some critical size.)
As I said, though, my memory of order and such is more than a little fuzzy but, in addition to the little guys (the independent bookstores, neighbourhood cafes, stuffed monkey craftspeople, local dominatrices) there were the inevitable Big Players.
The first of these to enter my life was the Evil Blue Empire. The Evil Blue Empire is one of the five most massive Canadian banks. As a group, they’re renowned for staggering profits and mediocre customer service, although the EBE has given me the odd concession over the years. Or at least, employees (two very nice ladies) of the EBE have. The EBE is, well, evil. And blue.
One day I got an offer, probably from my alma mater: “Hey! We’re in bed with the Evil Blue Empire. Get our/their credit card and for EVERYTHING you buy, we’ll get a cut.” My first thought was that the idea of having sex with a bank was kind of grisly. My second thought was “What’s the catch?”
They convinced me that, although there was a catch (more than one, really), it/they was/were manageable and not excessively scary so I got their card and tried very hard not to think of them in bed (a task made a little harder by the picture of a phallic symbol printed on the card). It was, in fact, fairly useful: it had a large-enough-to-be-useful credit limit but not large enough to cause undue worry when I used it online. Which is what I did, mostly. That and buy gasoline. (So they knew my tastes in music, rude T-shirts and petroleum products. Like I said, not scary.)
Of course, it didn’t last. I mean, I used it for a few years to send no doubt trivial amounts of money to my old university (and rather more to the EBE — I tried not to dwell on that) but it was decided (probably by fat guys in suits — things are always decided by fat guys in suits) that Changes Had To Be Made — so they took it away from me.
Meanwhile (and I resist the urge to use the obvious cliché) I had another card also (as it happens) issued by the Evil Blue Empire. It brought its own ‘rewards:’ “Isn’t it wonderful? EVERY DOLLAR you spend earns you points you can redeem to buy a house.” “Umm, I already have a house.” “Then they don’t apply to you and you can never ever not in a jillion years use them. Sorry.”
So the ‘rewards’ program didn’t actually involve rewards except in the name. Was there a different program that I could have that might involve, you know, actual rewards? No, there wasn’t. Could I skip collecting a reward that I could never use? No, I couldn’t. Could I at least not have the number of unusable points PRINTED ON EVERY SINGLE BILL just to taunt me? No, I couldn’t.
Perhaps they weren’t being evil — just dickish.
Anyway, as mentioned, they took one of the cards away. It wasn’t entirely clear who ‘they’ were, of course. Perhaps it was the EBE’s idea — perhaps every penny that they handed out caused them physical pain. I can see that grating until someone cried ‘Enough!’
Or maybe it was the university. They were getting money from the EBE due to some number of alumni spending money but they must have wondered if, somehow, there was more money to be had if things were somehow… different. So they thought maybe if they approached a foreign bank. One with an alleged history of unfair business practices and political support for crooked politicians. What could possibly go wrong?
But I’m speculating wildly — I didn’t know. I don’t know. All I knew/know is that ‘they’ (for some definition of ‘they’) took my card away at which point the EBE told me “Buck up, we’ll combine the card you no longer have with your other card to make a faster, stronger, more virile card.” Cue the theme to a badly-acted ’70’s TV show.
(Well, they didn’t quite put it that way. It’s been a long time, but I’m fairly sure they didn’t use the word ‘virile.’)
But during the process they did say something like “Would you like your balance of home-buying-points that you can never ever use transferred to your new ubercard?”
What, I got a choice? That wasn’t like them.
No matter that it was hard to believe; for whatever reason I was allowed to decline the reward that only served to remind me how much I wasn’t getting, the reward that I couldn’t use or give to anyone who could.
“No thank you.”
Even more unexpected, I was allowed (well, ‘required’ is closer to the correct word, but I’m trying to be positive) to choose a different ‘reward’. I tried asking for ‘things being cheaper’ but that was denied. No, my other choice was something that looked a little like a Sikorsky S-43.
Interestingly, Ms. Rose already had an account for that particular reward, so I asked if I could accept that reward but funnel my points to her. I was told that certainly I could do that. (At the same time they put the Surprise Party and Practical Joke departments on alert.) Forms were produced. “Sign here and here and initial there and enter the account number in the box and what you’re asking for will magically happen. You’ll get a confirmation notice in the mail in a week.”
So I signed and signed and initialed and wrote and waited. And Lo! A package appeared in the mail covered with pictures of an S-43 lookalike. The various documents trumpeted that I now had my VERY OWN number and my VERY OWN account.
My very own? I made some phone calls. It turned out that it was ‘my very own’ — they hadn’t done what the lady at the EBE said they would so it was back to her. She seemed confused but came up with more forms: the previous forms to channel points to the existing account of another person and new forms to delete the account that they shouldn’t have created but did. More signing. More initialing. More waiting. Aaaaand…..
Another package. Another Very Own Account without disturbing or modifying the existing Very Own Account, so it was back to square one except that now there were two unwanted accounts to delete instead of one.
I forget how many times we had to go through this dance, but the Surprise Party and Practical Joke departments were clearly having a grand old time. Eventually it worked and I was ultimately able to ‘buy’ an exploding music player. Hasn’t exploded yet, though.
There’s something to be said for a wallet full of ‘independent’ cards after all.