Guest Column - July/August 2012

Are Your Rewards In Line With Retail Trends?

By Dana LaSalvia


Without question, merchandise incentives are the key to motivate, inspire, thank and reward different generations of employees, vendors, customers and colleagues. Physical rewards elicit an emotional attachment and will be remembered for years to come. Program participants are influenced to choose rewards in the same way they are influenced to purchase retail products, namely the connection one feels to a brand and how a product fits with one's individual lifestyle. Program participants must be viewed as consumers. In order to fully engage your participants and keep redemption rates high, your program rewards must mirror current retail trends and keep pace with consumer buying habits.

What's Hot. What's Not.

Only a few years ago, electronics were the most popular merchandise product for all reward and incentive programs. But according to the Incentive Research Foundation's 2011 Merchandise Trends Survey, electronics are now the fifth most popular merchandise award. Incentive and loyalty program products must create an "I want that!" reaction from participants, not a yawn because the products aren't resonating or are considered last year's trend. In order to maintain and increase engagement, program rewards must evolve to keep up with participant demand for products that are truly desired.

As a program manager, are you tracking what's trending in retail and applying these insights to your rewards mix?

Several trends, such as celebrity endorsements, the popularity of reality television, the rise of social media networks and the ubiquity of mobile devices are all having a tremendous impact on shopping patterns. In addition, name brands also play an important role in consumer decision-making. The visual, emotional, rational and cultural image that one associates with a brand leads to stronger program engagement and participation. Choosing brand-name products that best fit the aspiration goals of your participants is an important contributor to your program's buy-in.

The Cult of Celebrity

Celebrities wield considerable influence over shopping decisions, as interest in celebrity culture is at an all-time high. There are more celebrity magazines, gossip-centered television shows, web sites and blogs than ever before. Celebrities are leveraging this extensive media exposure to brand merchandise and launching retail products. For example, celebrity chefs Rachel Ray and Paula Deen took advantage of their television success, and now each offers a line of popular cookware products. Singer and entertainer Nick Cannon leveraged his appearances on Nickelodeon and MTV, along with his celebrity marriage, by partnering with Monster to launch a signature pair of in-ear headphones.

This rise in celebrity appeal and celebrity-endorsed products now plays a major role in incentive redemption decisions. Mediaedge's Celebrity Endorsement Sensor Survey revealed that "35 percent of respondents believe celebrity endorsements improve a brand's awareness and generate interest." Keeping in mind that celebrity endorsements evoke consumer engagement and drive purchases, the same is true in the incentive world. Product selection should reflect the connection between the demographics of your program audience and the appeal of aspirational celebrity-driven brands.

Ease of Redemption

Research now fuels most shopping decisions, according to the e-tailing group's April 2011 Social Shopping Survey. With all four generations now connected 24/7 via technology, it is no surprise that reward programs must simulate the online shopping experience. Participants can access information at home, in the office or via mobile devices, while online retailers and many online rewards platforms have streamlined the shopping experience, making it simple and time-saving. Participants can Google the product benefits of an LG 3-D TV, watch Cuisinart how-to videos on YouTube, and comparison-shop Nautilus fitness equipment before moving forward with a redemption.

The capability to comparison-shop, research products, and purchase from smartphones and tablets has led to the expectation of ordering without actually stepping into a brick-and-mortar store. Program participants are now comfortable placing their redemption orders online just as they would place an order on Zappos.com. By utilizing an online rewards platform with mobile apps and bookmarks, incentive programs can offer the same instant gratification.