Companies that buy consumer data aren’t really interested in you, per se; they’re interested in maths. For example, if people in a certain area buy way more almond milk than in some other area, the almond milk firm might be able to become more efficient and maximize profits by moving their storage depot closer to the people who buy the most of it.

But they need solid data to make these kinds of decisions.

Until now, getting this data has been tough – especially as sales figures come in slowly from a variety of sources. A solution that uses simple tech is changing all that, and giving shoppers rewards for their data in return.

Reward apps ask consumers to photograph or scan their receipts in return for points. You scan every receipt because every purchase counts toward your personal reward program. The app gives you a digital wallet and as soon as you start scanning, the points come in – and then you decide how you want to be rewarded.

It’s a new twist on old-school loyalty programs – this updated digital version, is an app that lets you earn rewards. Any receipt, including from an online purchase, counts towards points in your app wallet. Groceries, plywood, medicine… if you get a receipt after you buy it, it counts. The choice of rewards is also a big draw for reward apps. Redeem your points at any major retailer such as CVS, Target, etc… or grab an Amazon gift card or free coffee. Scanning receipts takes a few seconds and after getting into the habit, it very quickly becomes an afterthought.

In the greater China area – instead of buying gifts for people over the Lunar New Year, people give a “Hong Bao.” The Chinese term means “red envelope,” and it contains cold hard cash. No guessing as to whether he’s going to like the tie you picked out (he won’t) or whether she’ll think the earrings you selected are cool (she never does). It might seem direct, but that’s the point. Reward apps also let you pick what you want as a reward. It’s a welcome change from “choose A or B.”

You earn points for simply shopping and select an option to redeem them that suits your needs, tastes, or wants. Some places in East Asia have been using these apps for a while already. Chloe Liu, a 40-something working mother of two in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung has scanned all her shopping details for a year and a half now and – with the company/app she’s using – has earned just under 6,000 points. Those could be slowly exchanged for smaller gifts – anything from steakhouse vouchers to movie tickets – or be cashed in on something big, such as a name-brand vacuum cleaner worth somewhere around £150. If she keeps racking up points, in a year or so she could have enough for a post-Covid vacation – with the airline tickets earned by diligently scanning receipts.

London high street shops

It’s a pretty equitable trade: you give up shopping info in return for gift cards or other free stuff. The stuff you’re buying isn’t “secret” info. Why not get something for your shopping data?

The app also allows you to sign-up for in-app programs. New parents soon learn that the price of nappies is only the beginning of the many tens of thousands of pounds they’ll be shelling out till the kid graduates college (hopefully). Reward apps let you pick specific stuff like a programme that’s focused on nappies – as you buy them, you earn points towards the next round, lessening the financial pain of your bundle of joy.

Or maybe you’re single and into books or music or want discounts on food items. Those are all possible options as well. There’s also no pressure to get the scans in immediately, you have as long as two weeks.

“Big data” isn’t Orwellian. These millions of bits of info get fed into programs that – in the end – provide solutions for companies that make what you buy cheaper and more tailored to your tastes.

In fact, some even see increased security as a reason for signing up for a rewards app. If your shopping habits are reviewed by an algorithm, should someone steal your identity or credit card and buy something insanely out of character for you, your bank might be alerted in seconds and the fraud detected in near real-time.

Each consumer will have to weigh the pros and cons, but for people like Mrs Liu, the verdict is in – and she is more than happy to get paid for simply scanning some receipts.