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Talking Customer Loyalty in 2021 – featuring Paula Thomas [Interview]

Retailers that leverage customer loyalty as a competitive differentiator are eager to see what 2021 will bring after last year’s pandemic brought new consumer behaviors, less patience, and heightened expectations.

Earning customer loyalty was hard before COVID-19 and is even more challenging now.

Consumers have limitless options and they want, first and foremost, convenience.

To help you get more insight into customer loyalty trends for 2021 and beyond, we reached out to loyalty expert Paula Thomas, who is also the host of the “Let’s Talk Loyalty” podcast.

Paula shared her thoughts about:Paula Thomas photo

  • What loyalty trends she envisions
  • How retailers can make the shopping experience more convenient for consumers
  • What consumers want in a loyalty program,
  • And the rise in premium loyalty programs


Jim Tierney: With the rapid shift of consumer behavior since the pandemic started, which new consumer behaviors/expectations do you think will stick moving forward?

Paula Thomas: I’m a firm believer in paid loyalty programs so I fully expect to see those continue to thrive post-pandemic. The increasing dominance of digital channels even in the retail business will stay long term.


Jim: How can retailers make the shopping experience more convenient for consumers and how do you think that will impact customer loyalty in the long run?

Paula: I’m a huge fan of using existing cards such as payments cards as a loyalty program identifier–eliminating the need for customers to swipe twice at checkout.

It’s faster and easier, and usually means the customer then has a digital receipt anytime they need it without wasted paper for printed receipts, and of course, it’s environmentally friendlier too.

I also believe the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp can be extremely useful for many industries–particularly for customer service support.

Privacy concerns will need to be addressed along the way, but the whole idea of “CX or Customer Experience” needs dedicated resources to eliminate legacy sources of frustration in so many industries.


Jim: What can retailers do to combat these challenges from a loyalty perspective?

Paula: I think consumers are re-evaluating who they do business with from the perspective of where they feel valued.

Beyond coupons or discounts, they notice how we respect their privacy and engage with them in non-commercial ways.

I believe that retailers truly need to be demonstrating loyalty TO their members across every aspect of their business and avoiding campaigns that focus purely on short-term revenue optimization without a careful strategy to build long-term relationships.


Jim: What do you think are the top three things consumers want in a loyalty program to make them become brand advocates in 2021?

Paula: Simplicity, ease of sharing benefits and rewards, plus a way to connect with each other as a community of customers.


Jim: We define premium loyalty as a loyalty program where people pay a membership fee to access enhanced, instant benefits like Prime, Lululemon, and CVS CarePass.

We recently published a 2021 Loyalty Industry Data Study and 90% of respondents say the launch of Walmart+ influenced their decision to consider a premium loyalty program by the end of 2021.

How do you see that influencing other retailers and how do you think brands will enhance their loyalty offerings in 2021?


Paula: Premium loyalty programs have proven to be exceptionally successful in many unexpected categories including coffee, car washing, and even buying a car.

While your study seems focused on U.S. only, it has also been done in China by WeChat, the U.K., and plenty others I’m sure.

I believe retailers and even FMCG manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, are all watching with interest and I’m sure many have pilot programs and consumer research underway already to test which value propositions might prove as compelling as Walmart+ to their customer profiles.

I also believe loyalty programs will continue to evolve their partnership portfolios to include collaborating with payment providers and complementary brands.


Moving Forward

As Paula notes, it will be more critical than ever to show your customers loyalty in 2021 and not just expect loyalty from them.

Your customers are re-evaluating who they do business with based on where they feel valued. This connects to her point about the success of premium loyalty programs and their wealth of appealing benefits that are always accessible.

Knowing that loyalty is even harder to attain and retain now, you have to show your customers how much you value them beyond just coupons and discounts.

How can you make the experience awesome for your customers in 2021?


ebbo helps brands achieve their customer loyalty goals with full-service, end-to-end solutions and also creates original educational content straight from the experts to help loyalty marketers stay on the cutting edge of customer engagement.

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