Marina Koss, a German high school student, admits she’s addicted to Shein.
It’s not just the fast fashion e-commerce giant’s low prices that pulled her in. Koss is constantly rewarded for spending more time — and money — with the brand. Like many rewards programmes, Shein gives Koss points for every euro she spends. But the company also rewards her for checking into her account, uploading photo reviews, watching live streams and participating in outfit challenges. Those points add up: Shein shoppers can earn up to 2,000 points a day and every 100 points amount to $1 — a substantial amount on a site that sells some products for under $2.
“The more I log in, the more points I get, so it’s really fun for a heavy shopper like me,” said Koss. “You look at how much you’re purchasing and how you want to earn those points to deduct money. It’s not hard, it’s just time you have to put in. It becomes pretty addictive.”
Shein has turned shopping into a game and its customers are playing. Shein recently surpassed Amazon to become the most downloaded shopping app in the US, according to data from SensorTower and App Annie.
Shein’s points system is part of a larger trend of “gamification” in shopper loyalty programmes. Once limited mostly to straightforward cashback schemes, brands now tell customers they can “win” points by “playing” in countless ways. Teen retailer PacSun, for example, will reward shoppers points just for opening the brand’s emails. The skin care company Blume and athleisure start-up Girlfriend Collective give points for following their social media accounts.
Fashion is borrowing techniques perfected by tech giants, whether it’s Facebook’s endless news feed and “Like” button or Robinhood’s splurge of confetti when users complete a trade. Those tactics have at times proven controversial: Robinhood removed its confetti feature earlier this year after regulators argued it was misleading young investors.
Shein uses a similar confetti feature when users check into its app. The goal with this and other gamified features is to hook customers so they engage with a brand’s marketing as a matter of routine, an uphill battle when inboxes and social media feeds are flooded with ads. Those routines make consumers more likely to shop, to spend more when they do and to return to a brand’s website or app over and over.
Attention is currency so brands are figuring out new ways to buy time and attention.
“Attention is currency so brands are figuring out new ways to buy time and attention,” said Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist. “Gen Z’s attention span is also really short, so you need to offer some sort of game of rewards to hold their attention.”
The Game of Rewards
The evolution of loyalty programmes was necessary to engage young shoppers who grew up with the constant stream of rewards in the form of likes and comments on social media, said Lauren DeVestern, managing director and partner in L.E.K. Consulting.
Gamification also fills a need for many young shoppers to build a relationship with their favourite brands, said Holden Bale, vice president of Huge Commerce, a digital marketing agency.
“About a decade ago, it seemed cool that we could tweet or chat with a brand over social media, but today, it’s about shoppers playing and engaging with a company,” Bale said.
Once hooked, those customers prove particularly loyal, said Kristen LaFrance, an executive at Shopify and customer retention specialist. She described gamified rewards programmes as a “brain hack.”
“Brand loyalty isn’t just chasing [spending], it’s a continuous journey that a customer goes through,” she said. “Put them through an exciting treasure hunt of an experience and you’re encouraging them to keep hunting and stay with you.”
Put them through an exciting treasure hunt of an experience and you’re encouraging them to keep hunting and stay with you.
These programmes can be lucrative for brands even if shoppers don’t make it to the checkout page, as brands can track members’ searches, browsing patterns and click-through rates, among other data, LaFrance said. A spokesperson for Shein said the company studies the behaviours of shoppers that use its app “to help our suppliers ... with more accurate forecasting to become more efficient.”
Blush Mark, a new fast fashion company that sells trendy $3.99 tank tops and $9.99 maxi dresses has operated a gamified rewards programme since its launch last year. Shoppers get points for checking into the brand’s app regularly and for making videos on TikTok.
“It adds engagement but we also see an increased engagement in average order value,” said chief marketing officer Ranu Coleman. “The more they are coming back and trying to earn, the more they are spending.”
Beauty brand Blume, which sells products like acne face wash and unscented deodorant, finds its rewards programme is particularly useful for getting existing customers to return, said co-founder and chief executive Taran Ghatrora. Blume loyalty members return twice as often to make purchases, she said.
“Attracting new customers is great but what’s more important is taking care of existing customers and keeping them,” Ghatrora said. “The customer loyalty programme builds brand love.”
Winning the Game
Gamified rewards strategies may have a limited shelf life. As more brands adopt the strategy and attempt to out-compete each other with ever-greater rewards, they will find themselves in a “race to the bottom,” said Bale of Huge Commerce.
“Gamification isn’t a solution, it’s a technique,” he said. “You want to use it as a tool to optimise value to the consumer, but there needs to be more beyond the strategy. The brand needs to be durable enough that the shopper will stay even without the rewards.”
The addictive elements of these reward programmes also mean some shoppers will get hooked to the game rather than spend with the brand, Karen said.
“It’s not exactly gambling, but the dopamine rush to get more points and get to the next level might be more exciting than the purchase itself,” Karen said.
The most effective programmes are tailored to the shopping habits of a brand’s customers; for example, if YouTube videos drive sales, create rewards that encourage more customers to watch them, LaFrance said.
In order to convert them and drive retention, they need to feel like they are part of something.
A clever name that makes a programme feel desirable and even exclusive also helps. Girlfriend Collective, for example, has named one loyalty programme Mint, which is free to join, a second called Jade, which requires $250 in spending and Sage, the third, which requires $450 in spending.
“Giving it a cute name makes shoppers feel like they are becoming a member of a club,” LaFrance said. “Typically, if someone needs to buy something, they go to the easiest and cheapest option, so in order to convert them and drive retention, they need to feel like they are part of something.”
Blume offers shoppers limited-edition merchandise like mugs and baseball caps if they hit a certain number of points. That creates a sense that customers are really winning a game, Ghatrora said. Shoppers can also gain entry to private Facebook groups and the brand’s close friends list on Instagram.
“We wanted people to feel excited about interacting with us, so we focused on things you can’t shop on our website,” she said.