It may seem tough for a system that limits itself to one retailer per vertical to expand, but Plenti is making it happen.

After eight months, the multi-merchant loyalty program is still in growth mode, this week adding Chili's Grill & Bar restaurants, its first participant in the casual dining category. Chili's joins AT&T, ExxonMobil, Macy's, Nationwide, Rite Aid, Direct Energy, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Hulu as participants in the program, managed by American Express, which is also a participant with its separate Plenti credit card.

The program was designed to appeal to consumers by allowing them to earn and redeem a common reward currency at different retailers. Retailers were assured that they would be the sole participants in their category; for example, as long as AT&T is on board, Verizon will not be.

This gives Plenti an advantage over other multi-merchant initiatives, such as the Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) mobile wallet, according to Abeer Bhatia, executive vice president and CEO of U.S. Loyalty for American Express.

"MCX has a great idea and we congratulate them, but it makes it harder when the merchants are in the same categories," Bhatia said. Ultimately, Plenti "would be happy to find ways to participate with MCX" and be a loyalty component at some level to its payment method, Bhatia added.

Plenti also benefits from being designed as a loyalty system and not a payment system, despite its ties to Amex.

"We are payment agnostic. We don't care if the Plenti cardholder uses cash, writes a check, or pays with an American Express or Visa card," Bhatia said.

Still, Plenti has some hurdles to jump.

Research from Auriemma Consulting Group late last year indicated that consumers like the multi-merchant reward program concept, but Plenti had not yet hit its stride with merchant participants, card users or even consumer awareness.

Bhatia could not disclose the current number of Plenti users, saying only that it is "in the millions." Plenti is a free program for consumers, who can sign up for a card at merchant locations or through the Plenti app.

As for merchant participation, Bhatia said Plenti is still looking at more categories to add to the program, rather than more merchants in each category.

But in sticking to this model for merchants, Plenti runs the risk of limiting its audience of consumers, said merchant acquirer consultant and industry researcher Paul Martaus of Martaus & Associates.

"Even if you have the merchant that is a category killer and the biggest player in each segment, the collective share of consumers may not be significant enough to be the end of the game," Martaus said.

Plenti may decide to operate under its current setup for a number of years and then adjust the program as needed, based on market trends or competition, Martaus added. "Even though they have had a few false starts over the years, Amex is very smart about this sort of program."

Over time, Plenti figures to land far more merchant partners while advancing the digital and mobile capabilities of the program, Bhatia said. Being a plastic card-based program, Plenti has no plans for adopting NFC "tap and go" technology. But its users often earn or redeem points through purchases on mobile devices, Bhatia said.

"If this were a marathon, we would be in mile three with a long way to go," Bhatia added. "We feel very strongly that this is the future of loyalty, and we believe that 10 to 15 great American companies can create something of more value than one company alone."

Adding its first restaurant this week is a good place to start the next leg of the marathon.

By the second half of 2016, My Chili’s Rewards members will be able to use Plenti program benefits along with their existing loyalty status. Plenti members will be able to earn and use Plenti points when dining at or carrying out orders at Chili’s restaurants nationwide.

When paying for a meal at one of Chili's point of sale tablets, Plenti users can enter the card ID number or the cell phone number associated with the card to apply points on a bill. Every 1,000 Plenti points equals $10 at most merchants.

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