What's the Point?

Scott Gardner

Before taking a long trip anywhere, I typically go through a preparation ritual that includes such mundane things as clipping my toenails and oiling the zippers on my suitcase. One important step in this ritual is cleaning out my wallet. My wallet has a tendency over time to accumulate stuff: convenience store receipts, nameless phone numbers, expired coupons, even crushed senbei crackers given to me by grateful speech contest participants. One thing that most notably does NOT build up in my wallet is, of course, money. 

Over the years, though, I’ve been led to believe by various intrepid commercial enterprises that money can indeed accumulate in my wallet, specifically in the form of “point cards.” The term “point card” is apparently a Japanism for what I think in the States we would call a “rewards card” or “loyalty card.” They could just as well call it a “Pavlov card,” though, since its purpose is to condition you to use it repetitively, at the same store, hopefully to the point of not even thinking.

In fact, some cards are actually required in order to buy from the store that issues them, or even get through the door. I remember the first time I learned about “exclusive” shopping cards while visiting my mother in the USA. As we stepped out of the house to get some groceries, she started digging through her purse, saying she had to make sure she had her “Sam’s Club” card. I immediately conjured up distasteful images of a seedy pool-and-poker joint on a poorly lit street near the railroad tracks. Eventually, though, we arrived at the “Club,” which turned out to be the most massive single-unit shopping structure I had ever seen. (I was, however, spot-on about the railroad tracks.) 

Inside were hundreds of people wandering in great aisles of merchandise that extended back approximately the length of an airport runway. The shelves rose up, as well, to crash-helmet-required heights. I remember seeing giant electric fans in the ceiling, presumably to manipulate the weather inside and discourage the formation of storm fronts. Most shoppers were pushing around bumper-reinforced shopping carts that could hold as much as your average 軽トラ (keitora, a small engine pickup truck). And the carts were full! As Mom flashed her loyalty card at the store bouncer and strode toward a row of parked shopping carts, I thought, “Welcome to the club.”

Other point cards are less restrictive, of course, like most of those I see in Japan. At stores offering these kinds of cards it’s perfectly all right to make a purchase without one, as long as you are willing to endure the cold, judgmental gaze of the clerk who seems personally offended by your lack of “loyalty.”

And don’t forget that collecting the points does typically pay off. For a while I was getting my hair cut at two or three competing barbershops. Hair care is of course one area where customers can be extremely loyal to their favorite service provider. In my case, though, a haircut consists of six minutes with an electric clipper and straight razor, so I was willing to let just about anybody do it, depending on how many other geezers were in line before me.

One of the barbershops started offering a point card, and without knowing for sure what was entailed in its use (free toenail clipping, perhaps?), I got into the habit of whipping it out and getting it stamped whenever I went there. The other shops, meanwhile, offered no card, nor any other perks beyond occasional fawning praise on the supposedly “エレガント” (elegant) taper of my bald head. Flattering, yet creepy.

One day after a session at the card-offering barbershop, I went to the register as usual, where the barber checked my card and said I had filled it up. He then proceeded to charge me only 20 yen for the haircut. I did one of those double takes you see in the movies, lurching my head up from my wallet and saying “Ehhh?” in an obnoxiously overdramatic voice. He merely wiggled the card between his fingers to indicate that he was redeeming the points on it. Then he signed it, stuck it in the register, and pulled out a clean one to let me start over. As for me, I decided that day I much preferred cash discounts from point cards over lathered-up adulation for my pointed cranium.