Malia Johnson started distributing her customer-loyalty cards a decade ago in response to the arrival of big-box retail in Hawaii, but last month she found the cards helped her gift shop battle an even bigger threat: recession. Although the cards' $10 discount kept holiday sales below 2007 levels, "at least they're being used and it brings people back," she says. Experts say loyalty programs are especially important during times of stagnant growth.

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