Don't check out without checking in to see where you can earn miles and points for shopping.
Online shopping has become an increasingly popular way to shop and is especially convenient for business travelers who can shop from their hotel room, while waiting for their flight at the airport or even during their flight on a WiFi-equipped plane. Nearly every loyalty program in the U.S. and many international programs feature mileage malls where members can shop and earn miles and points for their purchases. Mileage malls have been around for over a decade and have become a regular feature of loyalty programs. The online shopping portals benefit loyalty members, programs and retailers. Members can earn miles or points for purchases and loyalty programs are able to engage members with another way to earn. For retailers, teaming up with online shopping portals can bring in additional business.
Mark Dority, strategy director for the Americas with Collinson Latitude, a global provider of ancillary revenue products and services, says that mileage malls add value to all members of a program, regardless of tier status. "Elite-tier members of frequent flyer programs have many opportunities to earn miles through their regular travel activities, from flying and car rental to hotel stays and this will always be the mainstay of the FFP. Typically however, fewer than 20 percent of FFP members are elite. Therefore many are not necessarily travelling regularly and may not see the value in a program that just rewards for travel related activity--the prospect of reward would simply seem too far away. Mileage malls are the ideal way to bridge the gap--by widening a program's appeal and giving all members a great opportunity to earn miles consistently, just by making everyday purchases online. This allows the airline to rapidly and dramatically expand the scope of the offering through which members can earn miles and continually puts their brand front of mind while gathering important member data."
In this article, we'll look at the benefits of mileage mall shopping, the downsides to online shopping and some of the ways you can maximize your earnings from online purchases.
Why Visit the Mileage Mall?
Keep Your Mileage Accounts Active
It only takes a few minutes and a dollar to make a purchase at an online mileage mall to keep your miles from expiring. Purchasing a song via iTunes or an eBook at Barnes & Noble are both inexpensive ways to keep your miles alive in an account you don't frequently use. Just make sure you give yourself a few months instead of a few days before your miles are set to expire to make your purchase. And then check your account to ensure the miles have posted to your account well before the date the miles are set to expire. According to our online poll, 35 percent of respondents have purchased an item via an online mall that they wouldn't have otherwise purchased in order to earn miles or points. Spending a few dollars to keep your account active can safeguard your miles from expiration, even if you don't need to buy something. And sometimes there are promotions where the miles and points you earn for purchases are more valuable than what you are buying to earn them, as can happen with holiday bonuses.
The mileage malls frequently offer bonus miles for online purchases during the holidays. United Mileage Plus recently offered shoppers 1,000 bonus miles for $100 spent at the online mall during the month of June. Members could buy a gift for Father's Day and pocket 1,000 bonus miles for themselves. While most of the bonus offers start to appear during the busiest shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, be on the lookout for bonuses throughout the year. The mileage malls have been known to offer bonuses for back-to-school shopping, graduation gifts, Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, where bonus miles for buying flowers are abundant and members can earn between 30 to 50 miles per dollar spent on floral arrangements. If there's an occasion to shop for, look to see if any of the mileage malls are offering bonus miles for online purchases.
In 2009, US Airways offered a legendary shopping bonus where members who made purchases at five different stores could earn 250 percent bonus miles on their first 10 purchases. One of the stores participating in the promotion was TrackItBack, offering 40 miles per dollar spent. Dividend Miles members who took advantage of this promotion could earn 140 miles per dollar spent at TrackItBack, which means members could essentially buy miles for around $0.007 each, or 100,000 miles for roughly $700. And 100,000 miles is enough for a roundtrip business class trip to Europe. Needless to say, many members cashed in on this deal because of the low cost of miles, not because they needed thousands of TrackItBack ID Tags. FlyerTalk member fsfsfsfs who earned over 500,000 miles with the promotion had one regret--"Really wish I had spent a few more grand!"
But keep in mind that there's always a chance that the program will change the terms of a promotion and there's a risk in spending thousands of dollars and not receiving the miles or points you expected. FlyerTalk member Beckles didn't invest in the US Airways promotion as heavily as other members, but still ended up with over 300,000 miles. "I'm still amazed that they did not pull the plug on the promotion early or exclude TrackItBack at some point, I was concerned once it hit a broad audience a large response would kill the deal. But other than what appears to be a glitch on Thanks Again postings, everything seems relatively in order! I only scored 350,000 bonus miles myself, and I honestly wouldn't have done that much, it was my wife's idea to go that big when I told her about it."
While lucrative offers such as this one don't come along very often, they can pay off very well for those who take the plunge. Before participating in any promotion, read the terms and conditions very carefully and if anything is unclear, check out what other members are saying about it at milepoint or FlyerTalk and send an email or call customer service for clarification. Keep documentation of the promotional terms, your activity and any correspondence you receive. Hopefully you won't need it but a paper trail may be invaluable if your miles and points don't post and you have to follow-up with the program.
Small Change Adds Up
Even if you'll only earn 100 miles for your $50 purchase, the miles can add up over time. If you earn 100 miles a month every month for 10 years, you'll have 12,000 miles, which is almost enough for a one-way domestic flight. Before you buy anything online, check to see if you can earn miles or points for your purchase. Gary Leff of View from the Wing advises to "always check to see what points or cash back you can earn from online purchases. Even Amazon offers something. So don't leave points on the table. And be a little bit strategic about what points you earn, especially for purchases that will yield just a few miles. Can you use the purchase to extend the validity of an account (credit to an account where miles will expire in a few months and that you don't have other planned activity in) or to top off an account you're looking to redeem an award with? And compare who is offering the most lucrative incentive--e.g. two versus five miles per dollar."
Milepoint member mommypoints shops at mileage malls "many times per month for virtually every purchase that we make online." She's earned miles for purchasing remodeling items with Lowes and selecting "in store pick-up. We also get lots of 'little things' like baby clothes, diapers, etc... through mileage malls and it all adds up."
If you like to keep your online shopping transactions as quick as possible, it's easier to navigate to an online retailer without going through the mileage mall. But it's just one extra step to visit the mileage mall first and once you get into the habit of always logging on to the mileage mall before shopping, it will soon become second nature to get miles for shopping. Buying everything from toilet paper to socks to the latest version of the iPhone can all pad your mileage account and get you one step closer to your next free flight.
Unlike signing up for a credit card and instantly receiving a huge bonus of 50,000 miles, the miles earned from mileage mall shopping are consistent, small tokens of appreciation from your loyalty program. Unless you take advantage of a shopping promotion, you probably won't get mileage-rich quickly, but if you're going to buy something anyway, you might as well get miles or points for your purchase. And if you pay with a co-branded credit card, you can earn even more miles or points.
How to Earn for Shopping
Before shopping, log on to the mileage mall website. Miles or points are only earned on purchases made at the store's online retail site when you access the site via the mileage mall website. If you simply go to the retailer's website or forget to sign in before shopping, you won't earn any miles or points. And be sure to enable cookies. Mileage mall purchases are tracked by cookies so check to see if your web browser is set to accept cookies before making your purchase.
Finish What You Start
After you've made sure cookies are enabled, you've logged into the mileage mall and clicked to the retail site, you must complete your shopping transaction in one session. In other words, if you navigate to another site during your shopping session and then go back to the site, your purchase won't get tracked correctly and you won't receive credit for shopping.
We asked Stacy Hendricks, Director of Marketing at DBG Loyalty (the company that runs the malls of Marriott Rewards and Choice Privileges), why points fail to post and she said that leaving the shopping site is a main cause. "Most often shoppers leave their current shopping session or browser window to do things like look for coupons on third-party websites or click through an email from the merchant before they buy. Merchants pay awards for purchases based on the referring website, so if the last website or marketing channel visited isn't the reward mall, then they won't track it correctly. Be sure to complete your purchase without leaving the site. Some users may stop mid-purchase to check email and then revisit the retailer's website through a Google search. In that case, the retailer credits Google for the referral, and the user will not get their award." She continued, "DBG has a dedicated customer service team to help our members track down unreported sales and work with our merchant partners to ensure that every last valid order is awarded."
Once you start shopping, don't navigate to other websites. But if you do wander, you can always return to the mileage mall website, click on the merchant where you want to shop and complete your transaction.
A few airlines have introduced mileage-earning toolbars that you can download. US Airways, United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and American Airlines all have toolbars for their shopping malls. Use the toolbar when shopping online and the toolbar will let you know if you can earn miles when shopping with a retailer. (Read our interview with Sarah Arvin of Cartera Commerce later in this article to learn more about online shopping toolbars.)
Be sure to visit the retailer profile for the merchant you are shopping with to learn what items are excluded from earning miles. Not everything you may purchase is eligible to earn miles. For example, prescription drugs and gift card purchases won't earn miles with drugstore.com and with Macy's, "Gift cards, phone orders, macysweddingchannel.com and furniture/mattress categories are not eligible for reward." Other exclusions may include extended warranties and specific items.
Most retailers don't give out miles for purchases of gift cards, but a few do allow members to rack up miles with gift card purchases. Milepoint member goheerow likes the HawaiianMiles Mall liberal policy around earning miles for gift card purchases. "I tend to use Continental's ShopOnePass most often, but now that their double points feature just ended, I may shift my online purchasing to the HawaiianMiles Mall. Hawaiian seems to be on the aggressive now with new partnerships with Amazon and other retailers. I also like how you can earn miles by purchasing store gift cards, which most malls like Hilton HHonors and other airline malls won't let you do. Sure you can earn miles by going through Giftcertificates.com, but 1) that's an extra step and 2) unless you can find codes to reduce their processing/shipping fees, not worth it sometimes."
Downsides to Shopping for Miles
One of the downsides to online shopping is the cost to ship items and unfortunately, members do not earn miles for shipping or taxes. A few online retailers, such as REI, Walmart and Sears, will give shoppers the option to ship their items to a nearby store for free even for small purchases. Many retailers will waive the shipping fee if you make a minimum purchase, such as $50 or $100. And some stores will offer limited-time offers of free shipping.
If you purchase an item through the mileage mall and then send it back or return it to the brick and mortar store, you won't earn miles for the transaction. We've heard this question asked many times before and it sounds like an easy way to pad your account--if I buy this laptop for $1,000, can I earn 3,000 miles for the purchase and then return the computer to the store for a refund and keep the miles? The answer is always no. Once your credit card is credited with the return, the miles will either never post or if they have already posted, they will be deducted from your account.
Regarding avoiding returns, just like with all online purchases, you don't have the ability to actually see the item before you purchase it. So it's a good idea to see the item in a local store to know if it is indeed what you would like, before returning home to purchase it via your computer. And, if you're tempted to make an impulse purchase at your local store, you might want to delay the purchase until you can see what the cost might be for the same item online where you can get miles/points for the purchase to see if purchasing online is a better choice.
Missing and Delayed Miles
If you are shopping at an online shopping portal because you need a few hundred or a few thousand miles to reach an award level, be forewarned that it could take several weeks for your miles to post. And sometimes months can go by and the miles still haven't shown up in your account. For a $30 purchase, members may not be compelled to chase the 60 or 90 miles for their purchase but if you made a large purchase, waiting for a few thousand miles to post can be frustrating and it's a good idea to keep your receipts. And if you participated in a lucrative promotion, making screen shots or printing out the details of the promotion and your purchasing activity could help you later if your miles fail to post. After you complete your purchase, you will receive a confirmation number. Keep track of your confirmation since it will be helpful if you need to follow-up on your miles. Most of the time, the miles will automatically appear in your account without any follow-up required.
The frequent flyer programs don't manage the malls, which are operated by outside vendors, so contacting the FFP customer service center won't help you acquire your missing miles. You will need to go to the mileage mall site and find the customer service phone number or fill out an online form to request the miles you expected to earn be added to your account. Our recent survey revealed that almost 40 percent of those responding said they had to follow up on missing credit from online shopping and more than 10 percent said they did not get the miles or points they expected but did not bother with following through to get them.
Coupons or Discount Codes
Be careful when applying a coupon or promotional code to your order. Entering a coupon or discount code at checkout may disqualify your purchase from earning miles. Only those coupons and promotion codes listed on the mall's website are safe and won't affect whether you'll earn miles, but sometimes adding a code you found somewhere else may still work. You can decide if the savings you receive are worth possibly not earning the miles if you don't have time to read the fine print.
Search Engines or How to Get the Best Deal
The mileage malls change frequently and unless you are a daily online shopper, you may not notice when a new retailer is added. Stacy Hendricks of DBG Loyalty says, "DBG is always looking for new retailers that might be of interest to our shoppers. We work with all of the top retail brands that people know and trust, and use shopping patterns from our members to help determine what new partners to add. For example, we've seen particularly strong growth lately in the Home & Garden category and looked to add specialty or niche brands that we think our members would enjoy shopping with based on places they are already shopping."
There are a few online search tools available to help you compare offers to see which frequent flyer or hotel rewards program will give you the most number of miles or points for your purchase. Before heading over to your online mall, visiting one of these sites first can help you get the most miles for your purchase.
The directory at evrewards.com tracks the rewards you can earn with over 40 loyalty programs at over 10,000 online stores. Enter the store where you would like to shop in the "where are you shopping" box and click Find Rewards. Evrewards lists cash back awards, points programs, frequent flyer and hotel rewards programs to give you a comprehensive look at all of the options. For example, enter Home Depot and you'll see 15 frequent flyer and hotel rewards program that partner with Home Depot and the specific offers for each program. Make your purchase through the Delta SkyMiles mall and you can earn four miles per $1 spent but only two miles per $1 spent with US Airways Dividend Miles. By shopping with Delta SkyMiles instead of US Airways Dividend Miles, you can double the number of miles you earn. The website isn't completely accurate and up to date--defunct Midwest Airlines is one of the partners listed--but most of the offers are accurate and it's definitely quicker than going to each mileage mall individually to compare the offers. Milepoint member icurhere2 primarily takes "advantage of special offers/multi-partner offers if any come to mind, falling back on the evreward.com site on a per-merchant basis if not."
Similar to evrewards.com, shoppers can visit http://www.RewardsDB.com
to compare offers from loyalty programs. The site isn't as user-friendly as evrewards.com, but we mention it here because it is available to help you compare offers. We searched for Home Depot and found current offers and offers from both Midwest Airlines and Northwest Airlines, so the information you find here may be outdated. The Rewards DB includes cashback, miles, points and other offers with over 95 rewards programs.
There is a mileage mall comparison tool at WebFlyer.com (InsideFlyer's sister site) that lists the offers for over 20 airline and hotel loyalty programs. Visit WebFlyer.com/deals/mileage_mall and you can search by mall or by store to view the miles or points you can earn for shopping. When searching by mall, you can sort the list by number of miles or points earned and view the top mileage offer for that mall. For example, the AAdvantage mall offers 8,000 miles for purchasing an ADT home security system. You can also view the top 20 highest offers across all of the malls and compare stores. FlyerTalk member DCAorBust says, "I find that the mileage mall feature on WebFlyer.com is a pretty good resource for identifying opportunities that you might otherwise not notice ... I add a few thousand miles to my American, Delta and other accounts every year this way."
Interview with Cartera Commerce
Cartera Commerce is the company that operates the mileage malls of American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines and has about 60,000 online and brick and mortar stores that they work with to provide miles for shoppers. The company's corporate headquarters is in Lexington, Mass. and they've been around since 2005. Earlier this year, Cartera, which had been rebranded from Mall Networks, merged with Vesdia. Cartera Commerce has about 150 million consumers in the programs they run. We spoke with Sarah Arvin, Vice President of Loyalty Programs at Cartera Commerce.
Mileage malls have started adding the ability to earn miles for offline purchases, catalog orders and restaurant reservations. Will more brick and mortar stores be added in the future? Are you looking to expand in any other direction?
A lot of people don't know all the ways they can earn miles and are still learning. Cartera's focus is to provide the broadest offers to frequent flyers. We focus on giving them more ways to earn and making it as easy as possible to do so. We have most of the major online retailers in the shopping mall so a lot of our focus is on expanding the number of brick and mortar locations where frequent flyer members can earn miles--not just national brands, but local stores, restaurants and service providers.
About 80 percent of commerce takes place locally so a big focus for us is on expanding the frequent flyers' ability to earn miles on their local, everyday purchases. For example, United Mileage Plus members in Chicago can use their Mileage Plus Visa to book golf at the Bolingbrook Golf Club to earn more than 180 miles, or they can buy a suit at Jos. A. Bank in Chicago's Loop and earn a mile for every dollar they spend. It's a good example of a truly local establishment vs. a national retailer. We're focused on both.
Another example is American AAdvantage members in Atlanta can use any registered credit, debit or co-brand airline card to rent a storage unit at SpaceMax and earn between 150 and 1,700 AAdvantage miles, or order pizza from Johnny's New York Style Pizza and earn up to 290 miles. It's really about offering choice and focusing on what's near the person since that's where most shopping occurs. If you have noticed the programs that we work with over the last several months, you'll have seen that we've started to roll out in more local markets where we've got more brick and mortar retailers within those markets. Many are focused in the airline hubs of the airlines that we work with.
Can you search for local businesses?
Yes, that's a key part of it. We can bring all of these things to the table where people can earn miles, but unless they know about it, they won't be able to maximize on it. We have designed the shopping malls so they aren't just a place where you can shop online, but you can also go and search for a store in your area. You can plug in a zip code, or look up a zip code if you're traveling, and find all of the different locations near you where you can earn miles with your co-branded card or registered credit or debit card. Those search and mapping tools are very important so you can know and maximize where you can earn miles and how much you can earn.
Who pays for the rewards that members earn?
For the shoppers, it's really straightforward what they are getting out of it. They are able to earn more miles for purchases they needed to make. The various retailers of the programs are paying for the miles. To them it's just like offering a coupon in the Sunday circular or Groupon or some other incentive to try to get people inside their doors or on their website. Instead of giving a coupon, they are willing to offer miles if someone will come shop with them. We connect those retailers with the shoppers through the frequent flyer program.
Will members ever be able to earn the same amount of miles for online vs. offline shopping? For example, members can earn 2.5 miles for shopping online at Barnes&Noble but only 1.5 miles at their stores.
One of the things we try to do is secure the most attractive offers for frequent flyer programs, whether it's online or offline. Ultimately it's the retailer who has something they are trying to promote--either to drive consumers to their store or website--who tend to decide what the reward values are. It really depends on the retailer. In general, retailer margins are lower in the brick and mortar world than through their online channels. They often want to drive traffic online so shoppers get richer offers there. It's not always the case and it depends on the particular retailer, which is why I think it's important for shoppers go to the website, look for what they want to earn on and make a decision. Do they want to order it online, go to the store--maybe they want to buy online and ship to store? Having the option to shop in the store that is around the corner gives them another alternative.
What are some of the reasons why miles fail to post to a member's account?
One of the most frequent reasons is because the member forgets to shop through the airline's mileage mall. They go directly to the merchant's website to shop and forget to go through the mall. Or they enter a coupon or promo code that disqualifies them from earning miles.
First and foremost, we encourage shoppers to make sure they understand the terms and conditions of the program and the particular offer so they can maximize what they're going to earn there.
But the interesting thing is that when we survey members, the primary reason that they give for not earning miles for shopping is that they just forget to go through the online shopping mall.
Offering the ability to shop in-store with a participating card makes it a lot easier for in-store purchases. But in terms of the online piece, which is still very popular, we've tried to give shoppers tools so they never forget and don't have to wonder if they've earned miles or not. One of the things we have done over the last two years is to turn the toolbar into an innovative shopping solution or a widget--it takes the guesswork out of which retailers are offering miles or what you have to do to earn them--the consumer doesn't have to miss out on miles or jump through extra hoops.
What can members do to ensure their miles post and what can they do if they don't?
First and foremost, make sure they understand the offer and read the terms and conditions. Secondly, take advantage of the tools that are out there.
When we introduced the AAdvantage toolbar last year, we had a huge uptake from people who were very excited. Folks can download the shopping toolbar so they don't have to always go back to the mall. They can go directly to a merchant's website, or for instance if they do a web search for something and a merchant comes up, we're able to message them what that merchant's mileage offer is. That's one great way to ensure that you'll earn miles for purchases.
Use the mall to search for locations near you--the shopping toolbar and location search are both good tools. Make sure you know about offers. Sign up to receive special alerts to maximize mileage earning. With Delta SkyMiles, you can sign up to receive a deal of the week to earn extra miles. We had an offer where you could earn triple miles with Nordstrom for five days only. Shoppers who received that email knew about it and got three times the value versus those who didn't get the email.
How often do you add new retailers to the mall and how do you decide which retailers to add?
Most of the major online retailers are already in the mall and there are several hundred. We do add new online retailers every month and we'll send out alerts when new ones are added. Where we're adding on a significant scale is the brick and mortar merchants, both nationally and locally. When we look at which retailers to include, we focus on where do our consumers live and where are they shopping? Where do you spend your money? Where to you go out to eat, buy your groceries, clothes, travel? If you look at any of the programs where we run their shopping program, you'll see we are focused on airline hubs where a lot of people go--focusing on where they spend.
Can you tell us a bit about the new shopping toolbar and why members should download it?
The shopping widgets and the frequent flyer toolbars are something that we're very proud of and it gives a great value to frequent flyers. It's just another tool to maximize earning mileage and it takes the guesswork out of it. The way that they typically work is that you download the toolbar and anytime you go to a retailer's website in that shopping program we'll message you in a dropdown so you can see that yes, they are participating and you're going to earn however many miles per dollar. The key is that you won't need to do anything else because that toolbar is installed and enables us to track your shopping at retailers that are in the network. So it makes it much easier and takes the guesswork out of getting the miles.
If a member would like a new retailer to be added to the mileage mall, is there a way they can request one to be added to the site?
In all the programs that we run, if someone is interested in having a new retailer participate, they can simply contact us on the "contact us" form and recommend that retailer. Our merchant team is likely already talking with them but we love to get feedback from the frequent flyer base to understand where it is they are shopping and what they want to see in the program so we can continue to make it better.
A couple of airlines informed us about upcoming changes they will be making to their mileage malls. Frontier Airlines EarlyReturns is currently in the process of revising their online mall. Brigette Pence, EarlyReturns Communications Coordinator, said they will be adding "new functionality, more merchants and better usability" and the revamped mall is expected to open its virtual doors near the end of the year.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan also has a new mall in store and members will once again be able to earn miles for online shopping. Their partnership with Mileage Plan Shopping ended on Jan. 18, 2011, but they will be launching a new store soon.
It's still a few months away from the holiday shopping season and nearly every mall will offer bonus miles for shopping, so we don't recommend you finish your gift buying too far in advance of the season. But if you aren't already a regular online shopper, become familiar with the mileage malls now and find out which retailers participate. You may be surprised to find that the perfect gift will not only make someone else happy but also give you a few extra miles.
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