The Best Loyalty Programs

Starbucks and Panera show the others how it's done
 The Best Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs can get a bad rap these days. For every proponent of a loyalty card’s virtues, there’s a naysayer pointing out the drawbacks, and it’s not without reason. Even the biggest brands offering loyalty card programs have come under attack for shady practices like selling customer information, and others raise their normal prices by as much as double, turning cards less of a loyalty reward and more of a punishment for those who don’t carry them.

Even when loyalty cards aren’t working against you, sometimes they just aren’t worth the effort, netting you an awful lot more than a free ice cream cone on your birthday – what’s the incentive to keep coming back year round? (Or even on your birthday, if it’s a rainy day in February?)

That said, there’s some light at the end of the loyalty program tunnel – there are a few companies out there who really work for their customers and try their best to make each and every one of you feel a little more special for having done business with them.



Toward the end of 2009 that Starbucks announced its plan to consolidate the old rewards card and gold card into one new program. The concept is pretty simple. As the brand itself describes it, “the more you come in to Starbucks, the more we’ll reward you.” With that plan in mind, My Starbucks Rewards was born.

It operates on a very simple system: keep coming back and get more perks. Sure, there’s the old Free Frappuccino on your Birthday chestnut, but that’s what you get for just signing up and registering. Keep loading up your card with sweet coffee cash and the hits keep coming. Five “stars” (AKA five purchases) later, your card gets an upgrade to include free syrup shots and milk options – great for those of us who prefer the soy variety – and free refills on brewed coffee and tea during your visit. Once you thirty stars, your card goes gold and it’s free drinks every fifteen visits for the rest of the year from here on out.

It’s not the ideal rewards program for everyone –this rewards card works more like a gift card. This means you have to keep preloading it with cash, which can be frustrating if you’re not a frequent visitor. In addition, one of the biggest perks of My StarbucksRewards is the free refills, but it’s not such a hot deal if you’re not hanging around the shop long enough to cash in. On the other hand, if you’re a freelancer or other work-from-home professional who likes to make the local coffee shop your office from time to time, this reward program is a great way to keep yourself in coffee on the cheap.



Who doesn’t like a good surprise? The reward program at Panera banks on it.

If Starbucks’ rewards card is the very model of order and structure, MyPanera is the model of spontaneity – the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of loyalty programs, if you will. “MyPanera is about showing our appreciation and rewarding you in unexpected and surprising ways,” reads its homepage. Show up and swipe your card, and you never know what you’re gonna get – or when. It might be a bonus pastry, a gratis loaf of bread, or a blended coffee on the house.

One certainty is that customers are big fans of both its easy-breezy use and its method of surprise rewards. “Whether it’s a latte or a smoothie or a pastry,” says one loyal Panera customer, “it seems like every other time I purchase something there, I get something free.”

Of course, if you prefer consistency and planning, this may not be the reward program for you – though you can always check in on the MyRewards section of the Panera website if you really want to know what you have coming, treats change constantly, and you only have a few weeks to claim your prize. But if you want a little fresh baked spice in your life, try taking this loyalty program for a spin. 

Featured Articles + MORE Featured Articles >>