Rewards programs fed by poor economy, evolving technology

Mandi Welch has breakfast with her brother, Matt Tuttle, once a week at Panera Bread on Roosevelt Boulevard.

So when he persuaded her to sign up for Panera’s new customer reward program, “MyPanera,” she figured it to be just another ploy to keep her coming back another week.

But after she was given a complimentary pastry item of her choice immediately after activating her card, Welch said she instantly saw a value she can appreciate.

“It makes me want to come back, to know, ‘Hey, I can come in and get something for free - that I’ve been spending money toward something,’”  said Welch, 34, a stay-at-home mom.

MyPanera tracks customer purchases and then surprises them with their favorite buys free from time to time. It also lets customers in on various store offers and cooking tips.

Panera is one of a growing list of restaurant chains to use customer loyalty programs to help keep their regulars at the table and attract new ones.

“This is still a difficult economy, particularly for the restaurant industry where margins are even lower,” said Michael Donohue, vice president of media relations for the National Restaurant Association.  “These incentive programs or customer reward programs are a very important part of the business model.”

But the economy has not been the only factor driving the loyalty program push in recent years.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the technology,” said Amanda Harnish, local marketing manager for Panera. “And I think people are seeing the research showing that these programs are working.”

Read the full article here.

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