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The rich: An affinity for the better things in life …

The rich get rich and the poor get poor–er.

It was the Roaring ‘20s when lyricists Gus Kahn and Raymond B. Egan wrote the lyrics for the wildly popular foxtrot, “Ain’t We Got Fun.”

Every morning
Every evening
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money
Oh but honey
Ain’t we got fun?

In nearly a century since, the catch-phrase still haunts the average consumer who wants to be treated like royalty … but never quite makes the cut.

Smart retailers, though, capitalized on those longings – offering affinity programs that reward consistent purchases with richly laid-out premiums. A free toaster for opening a savings account. A free tank of gas for every 100 gallons pumped. A free cell phone when you sign a two-year service contract.

But today’s lingering recession has loyalty marketers scratching their heads over the dwindling aspirations of top-drawer prospects. Sales in upscale brands are down 10% or more. Buyers have turned practical – preferring qualities like durability and low cash outlay upfront over the “flash a Rolex in your face” brashness of the 90s dot-com boomers.

One of the principal findings of a recent survey by the American Affluence Research Center indicates that some 41% of the affluent say they will make a conscious effort to reduce or defer expenditures during the next 12 months.

For decades, Americans have tapped their credit cards beyond all reason – and financial patrons were all to willing to accommodate them with ever-increasing credit lines. Traditional guidelines flew out the window as the sons and daughters of baby boomers bought cars and houses with little or no money down. But it soon came time to pay the piper, and margin-based sales enhancements simply dried up.

So, if credit offers are not as available as a weapon in the marketing arsenal, how do retailers adjust to the belt-tightening of high-end consumers? One trend: Go after Richie Rich with the same loyalty tactics long proven successful on Joe Sixpack.

Well, the Wall Street Journal reports that the posh Ritz-Carlton is joining with other hotel chains, airlines, credit-card companies, and even neighborhood sandwich shops in offering a loyalty program to its customers. Like many corporations, the Ritz has been successful in keeping its numbers respectable by sharply discounting rooms and services, and by operating “leaner and meaner.” The teamwork-affinity program is the latest in these strategies.

Likewise, Panera Bread, the upscale bakery chain, has launched a new loyalty card program in select locations, which it hopes soon to expand nationwide. Customers get a free loyalty card at the bakery, then register the card online to receive an email coupon good for a free pastry upon registration. The program also chimes in with a birthday freebie and sundry other coupons and special offers.

In the end, great companies don’t just win new customers, they bring them back for more. Wealthy or poor, every customer wants to be treated like a tycoon.

But in today’s economy, even the rich and famous may need a little extra incentive to remain loyal.

The good news: Upscale customers understand the difference between quality and gimmicks, and are most likely to prefer relationships with businesses they know and trust. In fact, the affluent consumers has the highest loyalty participation of any single group. To appeal to the affluent, successful businesses have to move “beyond points” to create unique and relevant customer experiences.

Win them over, and the long-term rewards will be great – even if belts are cinched a bit tight at the moment.

Sallie Burnett
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