The Evolution of Loyalty Programmes: From Sperry & Hutchinson to Modern Multi-Faceted Loyalty Programmes

In today's consumer-driven world, loyalty programmes have become an integral part of businesses' marketing and customer retention strategies. These programmes are designed to reward customers for their continued loyalty and have a long history that dates back centuries. While it is difficult to identify a single inventor or company responsible for loyalty programmes, the mechanics of rewarding customer loyalty has evolved significantly over time.

This article explores the evolution of loyalty programmes, from their early origins to the modern strategies employed by a wide range of businesses, including retailers, airlines, hotels, credit card companies, and more. We will take a look at the pioneering efforts of Sperry & Hutchinson, the introduction of frequent flyer programmes by American Airlines, the emergence of hotel loyalty programmes, and the current landscape of loyalty programmes in various industries.


Loyalty Programmes: A Journey Back in Time

The idea of rewarding customers for their loyalty can be traced back to ancient Rome, when merchants would offer tokens or special privileges to frequent customers. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, craftsmen often had their own versions of loyalty programmes, providing benefits to those who were regular customers of their services.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that loyalty programmes began to take the more modern form that we recognise today.


Sperry & Hutchinson: Pioneers of Modern Loyalty Programmes

Sperry & Hutchinson (S&H), a US trading stamp company founded in 1896, revolutionised the way businesses rewarded customer loyalty. Their innovation was the introduction of trading stamps, a concept that we still see in modern loyalty programmes today.


Trading Stamps: The Birth of Customer Loyalty

S&H provided customers with stamps whenever they made a purchase at a participating retailer. These stamps could be collected and then redeemed for various products, including household goods, appliances, and other merchandise available in S&H redemption centres. At the time, this approach was groundbreaking, as it encouraged repeat business and created a sense of loyalty among customers.

The success of trading stamps was partly due to the economic climate of the time. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many households were looking for ways to stretch their budgets, and trading stamps provided a tangible way to save on essential items. Additionally, retailers benefited from increased customer retention and sales, making it a win-win proposition. Loyalty programmes are able to really prove their value in difficult economic climates.


The Impact of S&H Green Stamps

S&H Green Stamps, as they came to be known, became an iconic part of American consumer culture. Customers eagerly collected these stamps, and the redemption catalogues offered a wide range of products. The ability to save up stamps for something aspirational added excitement to the shopping experience.

The success of S&H Green Stamps led to the emergence of other trading stamp companies, creating competition in the loyalty programme space. As has been proven through time, competition drives innovation and companies started to introduce promotional campaigns to further attract and retain customers.


Loyalty Programmes in the 20th Century: Expanding Horizons

Loyalty programmes continued to evolve throughout the 20th Century with the most notable examples being frequent flyer programmes and hotel loyalty programmes.


Frequent Flyer Programmes

The start of commercial flight brought about new opportunities for loyalty programmes. American Airlines has been widely credited with launching the world's first frequent flyer programme in 1981, which was called the "AAdvantage" programme. This programme allowed travellers to accumulate miles based on the distance they flew with the airline.

The introduction of frequent flyer programmes marked a significant milestone in loyalty marketing. Airlines began to realise that by rewarding loyal customers with mileage-based perks, they could encourage repeat business and brand loyalty. The concept of earning miles for flights and redeeming them for free or discounted travel soon became a standard practice in the airline industry.

Frequent flyer programmes not only incentivised customers to choose a particular airline for their travels but also fostered customer engagement and loyalty through exclusive perks like airport lounge access, priority boarding, and upgrades. This allowed the airlines to offer rewards with partner companies opening up the field for collaboration within loyalty programmes.


Hotel Loyalty Programmes

Following the success of frequent flyer programmes, the hotel industry quickly recognised the potential of loyalty initiatives. Hilton Hotels took the lead by introducing its Hilton HHonors programme in the late 1980s. This programme allowed guests to accumulate points for each stay, which could then be redeemed for free nights, upgrades, and other amenities.

Hotel loyalty programmes proved to be effective in attracting and retaining guests, particularly frequent travellers. The promise of earning rewards and enjoying a personalised experience led to increased customer loyalty within the hospitality sector.

Both hotel and airline loyalty programmes worked in attracting both personal and business customers as they created a pull with members that hadn’t been seen before.


Modern Loyalty Programmes: A Multifaceted Approach

Today, loyalty programmes have become a widespread feature of the business landscape. Companies across various industries have embraced modern loyalty strategies to not only retain customers but also to gather valuable data and insights into consumer behaviour.


Diverse Industries and Programmes

Modern loyalty programmes are no longer confined to retail, airlines, and hotels. They have expanded into diverse industries, including:

  • Retail: Supermarkets, clothing stores, and online retailers offer loyalty programmes that provide discounts, coupons, and exclusive access to sales events.
  • Financial Services: Credit card companies reward cardholders with cashback, travel points, or miles for making purchases.
  • Dining: Restaurants and fast-food chains offer loyalty programmes with rewards like free meals, discounts, or members-only promotions.
  • Entertainment: Streaming services and movie theatres provide loyalty programmes that offer free subscriptions, exclusive content, or discounted tickets.
  • Technology: Tech companies offer rewards for customer referrals, product reviews, and participation in beta testing.

Data-Driven Personalisation

One of the most significant advancements in modern loyalty programmes is the use of data analytics and technology to personalise the customer experience. Businesses collect data on customer preferences, purchase history, and behaviour to tailor rewards and offers. Personalisation not only enhances the customer experience but also increases the likelihood of customers engaging with the programme. Data now has a value of its own and companies who previously had no data on their end customers are able to utilise loyalty programmes to understand trends and buying behaviours.


Mobile Apps and Digital Platforms

Loyalty programmes have embraced digitalisation, with many now accessible through mobile apps and online platforms. Customers can easily track their rewards, access exclusive offers, and receive personalised notifications. This shift to digital platforms has made it more convenient for both customers and businesses to manage and interact with loyalty programmes. Starbucks is widely considered to be the best loyalty app available on the market and they have successfully created a loyalty programme that vastly improves the customer experience for its members.


Tiered Rewards and Gamification

To encourage higher levels of engagement, many loyalty programmes employ tiered reward structures and gamification elements. Customers can progress through different membership levels, each offering increasingly valuable rewards. Gamification elements, such as badges, challenges, and points, make the experience more interactive and enjoyable for participants.


Partnerships and Alliances

Modern loyalty programmes often form partnerships and alliances with other businesses to expand their offerings. For example, a credit card company may partner with airlines, hotels, and retail stores to allow customers to earn and redeem rewards across a network of affiliated businesses. These collaborations increase the perceived value of the loyalty programme.


Emotional Loyalty

Beyond transactional benefits, modern loyalty programmes aim to foster emotional connections between customers and brands. By providing exclusive access to events, personalised interactions, and meaningful experiences, businesses seek to create a sense of belonging and attachment among their loyal customers.


Sustainability and Social Responsibility

Many modern loyalty programmes incorporate sustainability and social responsibility initiatives. Customers are rewarded not only for their purchases but also for eco-friendly behaviours and charitable contributions. This approach aligns with consumers' growing awareness of environmental and social issues.


The Future of Loyalty Programmes

As we look ahead, the future of loyalty programmes is likely to be shaped by ongoing technological advancements and changing consumer expectations. We have witnessed significant change across the loyalty landscape as generations become more engaged in sustainability and the cost of living or worldwide events like Covid impacts where and how people shop.

Here are some key trends and predictions for the future of loyalty programmes:


Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics will enable businesses to anticipate customer preferences and behaviour more accurately. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants will provide real-time assistance to loyalty programme members, enhancing their overall experience.


Enhanced Personalisation

Personalisation will become even more sophisticated, with businesses leveraging machine learning algorithms to deliver hyper-personalised offers and recommendations. Loyalty programmes will focus on creating individualised customer journeys to maximise engagement and satisfaction.


Sustainability and ESG Initiatives

Loyalty programmes will increasingly incorporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria into their rewards and recognition systems. Customers will be incentivised to make eco-friendly choices, support socially responsible causes, and contribute to sustainable practices.


Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) Experiences

The integration of AR and VR technologies will enable loyalty programmes to offer immersive and interactive experiences. Customers will be able to explore virtual showrooms, try on products virtually, or attend virtual events or training and access virtual product support as part of their loyalty rewards.


Subscription-Based Loyalty

Subscription-based loyalty models, where customers pay a recurring fee for access to premium loyalty benefits, have seen a huge surge in popularity across the consumer space. This approach ensures a steady stream of revenue and a more committed customer base. The subscription model trends can also be used effectively within standard loyalty mechanics to drive repeat purchasing.



The concept of rewarding customer loyalty has come a long way since the days of Sperry & Hutchinson's trading stamps. From its humble beginnings in the late 1800s, loyalty programmes have evolved into sophisticated, data-driven strategies that span a multitude of industries. Businesses today recognise the importance of cultivating emotional connections with customers and leveraging technology to deliver personalised, engaging experiences.

As we move forward, the future of loyalty programmes promises continued innovation and adaptation to changing consumer expectations. Loyalty programmes will be at the forefront of shaping customer-brand relationships, offering not just rewards but also meaningful, sustainable, and personalised experiences that keep customers coming back for more.


About the Author

Melanie Parker

Melanie Parker

Stream’s co-founder, Melanie, became the first British woman to become accredited with the CLMP from The Loyalty Academy. Passionate about all things loyalty, Melanie cuts through the technical jargon and gets to the real business issue. Melanie loves to develop engaging digital solutions that appear simple whilst creating long lasting partnerships that add value to all.


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