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I have at least a half-dozen customer rewards cards attached to my keyring. These days, the cards are small, and they’re infinitely portable. I never forget my CVS card so long as I’ve driven myself to the store.

But in addition to these rewards cards—which gamify grocery shopping quite a bit, given that you can try to game store-specific deals with double coupons—I also have a few customer appreciation cards.

Even the cupcake store has one: buy a dozen, get the last bit of the baker’s dozen free.

Games often involve some sort of incremental reward system. In RPGs, characters level up by gaining experience points as they defeat enemies. New levels unlock “freebie” skills and powers, a reward for sticking with the drier parts of the game.

It’s not enough to know that random battles will eventually increase your level. Players want a quantitative amount. How much do I have to grind? How much to I have to buy to get free stuff?

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Customer appreciation cards are older than the current scene of food product gamification. Before there were badges and achievements, there were incremental rewards. And you know what? It works! I love getting my card stamped and punched.

Why is this? Incremental rewards represent the small win. They are the smallest minute evidence of forward progression.

For the business, customer appreciation cards show goodwill. They reward repeat business, causing that feel-good emotion to bubble to the surface. For customers, customer appreciation cards inspire collectability, incremental reward, and a niggling sense of gotta-catch-’em-all.

My cupcake card is a consumer trick: am I getting cupcakes because I want adorable, sugar-laden treats? Or do I want to get my customer appreciation card stamped? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

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