GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. – It was the lure of a 10-cent teaspoon — silverplate, no less — that attracted Martha Reuben to General Mills when she was a newlywed more than 50 years ago.
She loved the delicate floral spray that graced the spoon's handle. She wanted more.
Reuben joined housewives around the country in the 1940s, cutting out Betty Crocker coupons found on General Mills products and sending them in along with a little money to build sets of Tudor Plate Oneida Community flatware.
"They were beautiful. It was the Queen Bess pattern," said Reuben, 73, of Dayton, Ohio. "I can remember, I just couldn't stand it until it would come. I would run to the mailbox hoping my spoon or my fork or my knife would be there."
With the support of people like Reuben, who went on to buy multiple sets of flatware for her three children and baby dishes and silverware for her grandchildren, the Betty Crocker Catalog Points program survives today as one of the longest-running loyalty programs in the country.
These days, General Mills is angling for younger customers by offering some of the hottest new items for the kitchen, like high-heat silicone spatulas that won't stain or burn and ball-tip whisks that reach every corner of the mixing bowl.
And to reach busier women who don't want to bother with clipping coupons, the company has added a discount housewares catalog that's separate from the points program.
"We're really bringing more of Betty's authority to bear on the product selection," said Lincoln Davis, who leads the company's direct marketing.
Back in 1931, General Mills began tucking an offer for a free teaspoon — Friendship pattern by William Rogers & Son — into bags of Gold Medal flour and boxes of Wheaties, thinking it would be a good way to boost sales.
The response was so great, the company says, that by the next year General Mills was offering an entire set of flatware that could be purchased piece-by-piece with coupons plus a few cents. For women like Reuben, flatware suddenly was affordable.
In 1937, General Mills began printing the coupons on the outside of its packages. Today, the coupons are found on more than 200 General Mills food products, including Betty Crocker baking mixes, Cheerios, Hamburger Helper, Potato Buds, Pop Secret microwave popcorn and Gold Medal flour. That's more than 2 billion packages a year.
The coupon program offerings gradually expanded beyond flatware to fill what this winter is a 76-page catalog — one of five annual mailings — with a wide array of flatware, dishes, cookware, gadgets, decorating products, furniture and toys.
Prices range from $5.25 plus 30 coupon points ($8.95 without points) for a silverplate fork or spoon to $229.95 plus 350 points ($385.95 without points) for a 16-piece set of Denby Harlequin dinnerware.
Few customers use the cash-only option because it's generally higher than retail stores routinely charge, Davis said. But customers who use the cash-and-points plan pay up to 25 percent less than a particular item might run at retail, he said.
A competitive shopper often can find some catalog items for less money at discount chains such as Tuesday Morning and T.J. Maxx. One way General Mills sweetens its offerings is by arranging exclusive rights to many items, including flatware patterns created by Oneida for General Mills, which is the largest distributor of Oneida Community stainless steel flatware in the country.
Up to 2.4 million customers receive at least one of the catalogs annually, Davis said. About 11.5 percent of sales volume now comes from Internet orders, which include a grace period of 90 days before customers need to send their coupons and money.
Ran Kivetz, a Columbia Business School professor and expert on loyalty programs, said the key to successful loyalty programs is not to make awards too easy or too hard to earn.
"You want some points, or some rewards, not to get redeemed," Kivetz said. "But you don't want too many points not to get redeemed because that means the program is not working or customers are not enticed."
General Mills won't say what percentage of its catalog points are redeemed. Davis did say the company processes between 600,000 and 900,000 orders annually, with an average of 210 points on each order.
"Sixty-seven percent of those individuals who shop with us say that the Betty Crocker points influence, either sometimes or always, their decision to buy that product," Davis said.
After several years of flat or declining participation, General Mills has tweaked its program to go after younger women. It's target audience is now women between the ages of 24 and 49, Davis said, though more of the buyers — 60 percent — are still on the older end.
The changes are putting the program back on the growth track, Davis said.
For Carol Schrank, of Midland, Texas, the points program is a hard habit to break. Her mom outfitted Schrank and three other daughters with everyday stainless through the Betty Crocker plan, then started to do the same for nine grandchildren.
After her mother died, Schrank's father finished the grandchildren's sets. Schrank herself has already bought child-sized sets of stainless flatware for the grandchildren she hopes to have someday.
"It's a generational thing," she said.