Retail memberships have perks, pitfalls

'Benefits sound great, but you have to make sure the numbers add up,' CR says

As more and more retailers offer a loyalty program, banking on shoppers paying a fee for the perks and privilege of shopping with them, Consumer Reports cautions people to weigh the pros and cons before signing up.

Randi Odesser is a member of Amazon Prime, a hugely popular retail membership program. When she shops for groceries, Odesser takes advantage of the discounts available to her.

"I am a loyal Amazon shopper, to begin with," Odesser said. "Now, having the added benefit of Whole Foods discounts makes it even better. It’s definitely a win-win."

Amazon Prime’s annual membership fee is $119. In addition to some grocery deals, Odesser gets free, expedited shipping, unlimited cloud storage for her photos and access to a lot of movies and music.

"Clearly, Amazon is on to something," said Consumer Reports' Margot Gillman. "More than 100 million Prime members likely make Amazon their first stop when they shop."

Plenty of other retailers are also starting to see the benefits of membership programs.

REI Co-op, AMC Theaters, Bed Bath and Beyond and Restoration Hardware are just of few of the companies offering member perks like discounts, free shipping and priority services.

"The benefits sound great, but you have to make sure the numbers add up," Gillman said. "Restoration Hardware, for example, charges $100 a year for membership. That entitles you to some discounts and design consultations. That would be great if you have a lot of furniture in your future."

Something else to be careful of -- making sure that simply having the membership doesn't lead you to spend more.

Research shows that when it comes to shopping on Amazon.com, Amazon Prime members typically spend an average of $800 a year more than non-Prime members.

When considering membership at a retailer, see how easy it is to cancel. Some automatically renew your membership and are nonrefundable.

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