BOLTON residents are to be given a pioneering customer loyalty card in a move to boost local businesses and counter threats posed by out-of-town retail parks. And Bolton Evening News readers will get an even better deal with an exclusive Gold card which will open the door to big savings at hundreds of participating retailers. The borough-wide scheme, sponsored by the BEN, is specifically aimed at helping local businesses compete with the £600m Trafford Centre due to open near Manchester in September.

The card, known as CentrePoint, will be launched in August.

It will be one of the first such schemes in the UK.

In the programme, users will accumulate points by having

their cards swiped through special terminals. Their points can be converted into big savings on household gas, electricity and telephone bills.

Mark Rossiter, editor-in-chief of the Bolton Evening News, said the loyalty card would be a key element in Bolton's economic development.

He said: "CentrePoint is an exciting scheme which will help small and medium-sized firms compete with their bigger neighbours.

"It will encourage residents to shop and trade locally and give Bolton businesses a powerful new way of retaining existing customers and winning new ones."

The 14,000 members of the Bolton Evening News Reader Club will have their cards upgraded to CentrePoint Gold cards. This will entitle them to all the advantages of the CentrePoint programme as well as the Reader Club's usual benefits such as discounts, free prize draws, competitions and special offers.

All members will be contacted in good time before the scheme begins. The new loyalty programme has been strongly backed by Bolton business leaders.

Maria Appleton, Bolton town centre manager, said: "This is an excellent scheme. It will serve the people of Bolton well and will be welcomed by the town's traders.

"We want to ensure that customers stay loyal to Bolton town centre, especially in the light of the opening of the Trafford Centre later this year," she added.

Richard Lynch, marketing co-ordinator of the Bolton Strategic Partnership, said: "Bolton already offers one of the best shopping days out in the north of England. This scheme looks set to make the experience even better by rewarding people for their custom. This really is an 'Altogether Better' idea which can only be good news for Bolton."

The programme will be managed by Lancashire-based Hesketh Information Technology, one of the leading UK loyalty card specialists.

Hesketh has provided loyalty card programmes for a number of major organisations, including British Airways, McDonalds and Pizza Hut restaurants and Cosmos Holidays.

When the first CentrePoint programme was launched in Blackpool last November, residents swamped registration desks to get their cards. In the first two months alone, cardholders spent £1 million.

Neale Graham, managing director of the Hesketh Group, said his organisation looked forward to working with the Bolton Evening News and local businesses to improve trade and give customers even better value for money.

He went on: "As the leading local newspaper group, the BEN is an ideal partner for us. Together we shall build on the success of other CentrePoint loyalty programmes for the benefit of local residents and traders."

Mr Graham commented: "In many parts of Britain, town and city centres are in decline. The development of huge retail parks has led to the closure of thousands of small and medium-sized shops in centres which used to be focal points of community life. CentrePoint is helping to reverse this trend."

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