MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – These days, not as many people carry cash in their wallets, but there’s something many of us seem to be accumulating in its place. We’re talking about those rewards cards.

Whether it’s for gas or food or to buy airline tickets, loyalty programs lure many an American in. But a new program is claiming a new approach to the loyalty game.

The Plenti card can be used and redeemed at a list of different retailers, for instance you could earn points at Macy’s and redeem the savings at Rite Aid. American Express is organizing the collaboration.

In an area of the country where the most popular attraction is a mall, it’s easy to find shoppers and savers like Monica Potter from Shakopee, who spent her lunch break at the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s.

“I’m all about it, all about the bargain hunting,” she said.

A seventh lunch free card at Macy’s and a SkyMiles card from Delta are Greg from Roseville’s favorites.

“You have to pay attention to where you use the card, trying to get the most points for it and that kind of stuff,” he said.

And that’s not just an amateur opinion. A professor at the U of M, George John, has done research of the effectiveness of loyalty programs of all kinds.

“It’s such a strong psychology thing,” he said.

He says human react positively to rewards and incentives and that’s why these programs work.

“All they’re doing is they give you a tenth cup of coffee free, but they’ve gotta make it up somehow so they make it up by the first nine ones being more expensive than what it would have been in a world without loyalty programs.”

John said companies are spending major money on their rewards programs and the rest of us are paying for it.

“In a perfect world, we would all be better if loyalty programs didn’t exist.”

But you can’t unspend money and the programs are popping up all around us.

“It’s got to the point today, you would almost not sign up for a credit card unless it has a rewards program,” he said.

You may have seen the ads for the Plenty card. It’s run by American Express’ loyalty program but has nothing to do with their cards.

It links together loyalty programs from a list of retailers. You can spend and accumulate points at one place and cash in on the discount at a different type of store.

“I just heard you can get points from the purchases you make at Macy’s and then redeem them at other vendors,” Potter said.

But some consumer advocates say there’s something else we all need to hear about the program.

Edgar Dworsky runs several consumer websites like mouseprint.org, “Looked into it and actually became rather surprised .”  He says despite the fact you can earn them at a slew of stores, you can only redeem them at a handful of places.

This is the list: AT&T, Exxon, Macy’s, Mobil and Rite Aid.

“The truth tends to be in the fine print,” Dworsky said “The headline, err, sometimes they play a little fast and loose with it.”

But that, John says, is the name of the game.

“The reality is no loyalty program has conditions that are firmly set and not subject to change,” John said. “They all change.”

John said there is one thing to be wary of with all these cards: “People buy things they shouldn’t buy because there’s a reward sitting on the cusp.”

As for the Plenti card, John says the broadness of the program makes it stronger than most.

John said when it comes to some loyalty programs, just know you are getting what you will in another way pay for.

“Are we gaining psychologically? I would say yes,” he said. “Are we gaining financially. Not really.”

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield