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Drugstore loyalty cards can mean real rewards

Walgreens wants to reward customers for taking a walk, and Rite Aid will help cover trial gym memberships for some of its frequent shoppers.

All the national drugstore chains now offer a free customer loyalty program loaded with incentives to use their cards. Walgreen Co., the nation’s largest drugstore chain, became the latest when it unveiled its Balance Rewards program in September.

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Here are four questions to consider before a store clerk asks you to sign up during your next visit.

1. Why would I want another card cluttering my key ring? For starters, there’s a chance to save money or build up points toward a future purchase.

Walgreen’s Balance Rewards program gives customer several ways to add points through both stores and online purchases. Shoppers receive a $5 award when they accrue 5,000 points. The reward climbs to $50 for 40,000 points.

Rite Aid gives customers a 10 percent discount on store-brand products once they’ve built up 250 points through that company’s Wellness Plus program. That climbs to a 20-percent discount for nonprescription purchases at 1,000 points.

CVS offers through its ExtraCare program 2 percent back on nonprescription purchases and a dollar reward for every two prescriptions purchased.

2. What else do these programs provide? These loyalty programs offer layers of benefits, with some straying beyond the drugstore’s walls to keep you interested. Balance Reward members can earn 10 points for every mile walked thought a ‘‘Walk with Walgreens’’ program.

Rite Aid will cover a two-week trial membership and half the sign-up fee for a Curves membership for Wellness Plus members who accumulate 500 points. The drugstore chain also offers screenings or a health magazine subscription for customers who reach that level.

3. What are the drawbacks? These cards have some limitations. Customers cannot earn points when paying for prescriptions in some states or if they have coverage through government-funded programs like Medicare or Medicaid. Pharmacists are generally specialists in their company’s programs, so customers should ask whether they can use loyalty cards when they pay for a prescription.

These cards aim to encourage customers to visit more frequently, and those visits can add up. Drugstores are generally more expensive places to shop compared to grocery stores or big retailers like Target, said Jeff Jonas, an analyst who covers the industry for Gabelli & Co.

Customers who sign up for these loyalty cards sacrifice some privacy. The cards give companies a record of your buying habits and shopping patterns. If you have a sensitive purchase for which you’d rather not receive a follow-up marketing e-mail, then don’t use your loyalty card.

4. What do the companies get out of all of this? The cards give companies loads of information to help them drive business to their stores, stock shelves and tailor marketing.

ExtraCare data help CVS executives figure out where to place items in its stores and what items to offer, said Rob Price, the company’s chief marketing officer. For instance, if the company sees that its regular customers are buying several bottles of a shampoo at one size, it might start offering a bigger bottle.

These loyalty cards also help companies figure out what deals you may like.

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