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Houston research: Customer loyalty programs are effective — but not in the way you might think

Even a simple loyalty program can woo customers into visiting more or prevent them from straying. Photo via Getty Images

Almost everyone who has shopped at a supermarket or hopped on a plane has been invited to join a customer loyalty club. But even the businesses that offer these programs are sometimes unsure of who uses and benefits from them most.

Rice Business Professor Arun Gopalakrishnan joined Zhenling Jiang from the University of Pennsylvania and Yulia Nevskaya and Raphael Thomadsen from Washington University in St. Louis to study non-tiered loyalty programs (these differ from tiered loyalty programs, which offer more benefits and exclusivity to customers who spend more).

These simpler programs, the researchers found, can have a striking value: the program they studied increased customer value by almost 30 percent during a five-year time frame, they found. That's considerably higher than previously found in this type of loyalty program. Almost as surprisingly, the program's effect on moderately loyal customers – seemingly among the likely beneficiaries – was minimal. Instead, it had the most dramatic impact on customers who had previously showed either great engagement with the firm or almost no engagement at all.

"The main upside of the program was that it got people to stick around with the firm, preventing defection," Gopalakrishnan said on the podcast INFORMS. At the company he studied, more than 80 percent of the total lift came simply from keeping customers in the fold.

Typically, he added, loyalty programs are assumed to be most worthwhile to frequent or high-spending customers. But the researchers found that very low-frequency customers who joined the program were also more likely to stick around, even though it didn't make much economic difference for them. "There may be some psychological benefit, just from being part of the program, that helps keeps these less frequent customers from walking away," Gopalakrishnan suggested.

Researchers have found it fairly easy to study tiered loyalty programs. But the exact value of the simpler, non-tiered programs is more obscure. That's because the previous studies typically included customers who had self-selected by joining a loyalty program.

Gopalakrishnan's research took a different approach. To address the imprecisions of past research, he and his team built a data collection model that let them examine consumer behavior both before and after customers joined a loyalty program. Importantly, the model also distinguished between program members (some of whom had been automatically signed up for the program) and nonmembers.

Using this more detailed model, the research team studied the behavior of more than 5,500 men's hair salon clients over 30 months. The research was possible because the team had already been following these clients to track how much money they spent during each visit, their frequency of visits, the types of services and products they used and if they used any type of discounts.

Then, ten months into the study, the hair salon chain created a non-tiered loyalty program. Customers who joined received a coupon via email for $5 off for every $100 they spent. Other customers chose not to join. That allowed researchers to compare the behavior in the two groups, with non-members as the control group.

The loyalty program had no impact on the amount of money clients spent during each visit, researchers found. Gopalakrishnan's team speculated that this might be because industries like hair salons have only a limited ability to increase sales of goods and services. Hair, after all, only grows so fast. On the other hand, the loyalty program did appear to influence how often customers visited.

Rather than increasing the frequency of visits for moderate clients, however, non-tiered loyalty programs changed the behavior of customers who were at the two poles of engagement: those who rarely showed up and those who visited so often they were practically on a first-name basis with their stylist.

At a time when consumers are overwhelmed with marketing ploys to lure their time and dollars, a thoughtful loyalty program can indeed be a good business investment, Gopalakrishnan's team concluded. However, managers should bear in mind that the benefit may not be exactly what they expect. Instead of giving a gentle nudge to turn steady customers into bigger spenders, good loyalty programs seem best at corralling outliers into the herd.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Arun Gopalakrishnan, assistant professor of marketing at Rice Business; Zhenling Jiang, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; and Raphael Thomadsen and Yulia Nevskaya, professor of marketing and an assistant professor of marketing, respectively, at the Olin Business School of Washington University in St. Louis.

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Building Houston

 
 

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

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