October 17, 2013
One hundred and fifty years ago it was common for country folks to charge all purchases for an entire year before paying off the bill. The proprietor of the store back then was so shocked and elated to get paid that he gave each member of the family a gift as a way of celebrating. The children got a piece of stick candy, the man of the house got a cigar or a drink poured from a bottle stored under the counter for just such celebrations, and the woman got a roll of ribbon and perhaps a few sewing needles. Please note that in the case of the children and the man such gifts were purely for enjoyment, whereas the woman's gift was, as always, utilitarian.
Gifts such as these were known as "pelons" and retailers are still giving such gifts, only today they are known as points. "Join our Craftsman Club," Sears says, and get points along with your credit card blisters. Fly United and get miles, or engage in a wild burst of consumerism at Ace Hardware and you'll get double points. Oh boy, gotta get those double points.
The problem is I don't quite know exactly what the points are good for. I think most men, when they buy a socket set from Sears, would rather get a drink poured from a bottle under the counter than they would a thousand points, but the points don't cost Sears anything and every Sears store doesn't have to stock a full bar.
I think the airlines started all these pointless business reward programs. I amassed hundreds of thousands of airline miles over the years which I could have used to fly around the world several times but who wants to fly these days if you don't have to? Besides, when you call up the airlines to redeem your miles for a trip everything is blocked out except for flying at three in the morning to Cleveland or Detroit. And since you are redeeming miles you are a third class passenger and have to fly with the luggage.
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So, I donated some of my miles and got magazine subscriptions with the rest, as my points were due to expire. Oh no, you can't let your points expire unused! So I got 21 subscriptions to magazines like Golf Digest and Cooking, even though I don't golf or cook. I was having to stay awake nights reading just to get through all the magazines I got every month and it was killing me. I was so elated when my year's subscriptions were over.
All these business reward programs are designed to drum up business and get a profile on you so they can sell you more stuff so you can acquire more points. To become eligible for points you have to give the retailer all sorts of private information, including your email address so they can bombard you with more ways to get points. The hardware store where I shop seems to use these special point events at times when the money might be running a little thin. Of course, cash flow is an age old problem but can you imagine how bad it must have been back in the day when people only paid their bills once a year like my mother did?
Years ago I read a story in Persimmon Hill, the great magazine published by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, about how one retailer tried to improve cash flow problems that could easily be used today instead of the point programs dreamed up by retailers. It seems that at the end of one year the famous Miles City Saddlery counted up all the saddles they made and all the money they got paid and they were short payment for one saddle.
In the course of doing business someone had failed to write down the sale and no employee could remember who bought it.
So the owners decided to bill 25 of their best customers for one saddle, thinking that 24 of them would ignore the invoice and the one who bought the saddle would meekly pay for it.
It didn't quite go according to plan. Nine angry customers protested the charge and the other 16 customers paid the bill with no questions asked.
I wonder if they all got double points?