The holiday season is a special time. It’s a time of giving, of sharing, and of strengthening family bonds.
And it’s the only time of year when a thoughtless driving maneuver is met not with an angry finger, but instead with a forgiving wave.
Indeed, peace and joy are in abundance this time of year.
Unless, that is, you haven’t finished your holiday shopping.
In years past, the holiday shopping season has been particularly stressful for the frequent traveler. Shopping in a hometown mall can be difficult enough, but making the time to hunt for gifts when you’re on the road can be next to impossible. Many travelers are forced to wait until the last minute to work through their shopping list, and as a consequence, fight the hordes of others who have done the same.
The entire process makes for a very unpleasant holiday experience, only slightly mollified by the understanding that each of those gifts will not only brighten the day of a friend and/or family member, but will also earn miles on an affinity credit card.
But times, they are a-changing.Today’s frequent traveler has a new tool at his/her disposal — the online frequent flyer mall. Like the traditional mall, the online mall provides access to several stores, each accessible from one convenient location (or one convenient Web address). In the case of online frequent flyer malls, the entrance point is from the frequent flyer program site, and when customers enter the mall from this location and make a purchase at any of the mall stores, they earn a set number of miles/points for the purchase.
Through these online malls offered by various airlines and hotel programs, a traveler can get all of his/her holiday shopping done from the convenience of a hotel room, and earn bountiful miles or points in the process.
Hello peace and joy … welcome back.
In this issue, we take a look at these online frequent flyer malls, which are rapidly becoming a preferred shopping venue for many a traveler and non-traveler alike. Which programs offer the biggest vendor selection? Which of the malls offer the best deals in terms of mileage earning ratios? Do all the programs offer an online mall, and if your program does not, is there any way you can still earn miles by shopping online? And, what can you do if your miles or points earned from an online shopping mall don’t post?
The Halls Are Decked with Online Malls
Two years ago the World Wide Web was in the midst of a worldwide meltdown, with dot-coms dropping by the bushel, and those that remained gasping for capital. But what at the time sounded like the labored last gasps of an over-hyped industry, turned out instead to be the collective intake of a second wind.
Today, Internet usage is more pervasive than ever, and the resurgence in the industry is in no small part due to consumers’ increasing willingness to shop online.
According to CIO.com, U.S. consumers spent $76 billion online in 2002, an increase of 48% over 2001 online sales. And online sales for 2003 are projected to exceed $100 billion, accounting for 4.5% of total retail sales nationwide. In a study conducted by Jupiter Research, an international research organization specializing in business and technology market research, it was found that the number one reason more consumers were making purchases online was due to convenience.
Those in charge of managing frequent travel programs have certainly taken notice of statistics such as these. While most everyone, it seems, enjoys shopping online, few appreciate the convenience it offers more than the frequent traveler. Combine that with an insatiable hunger to earn more miles, and voila, you have the perfect recipe for an online frequent flyer mall.
In fact, the online frequent flyer mall is an example of symbiosis at its finest. All of the parties involved — the program, the members, and the vendors — benefit from the relationship. The vendors gain access to a group of millions of motivated consumers, the program is able to offer another mileage-earning opportunity to its members, and the members can work toward earning that next free ticket by making purchases they might normally make anyway.
“The (ShopOnePass) site was created with avid mileage collectors in mind. It’s the best way to combine two hobbies in one: shopping and collecting miles,” says Julie King, Public Relations, Continental Airlines. “For the merchants, this program offers a premium shopping audience, additional brand exposure, sales through a low distribution cost and the cherished loyalty of airline miles. The Internet enables easy reporting and mileage posting for retailers.”
This mutually beneficial relationship no doubt explains the growth in these types of ventures. Five of the six major North American airlines — Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways — now operate frequent flyer malls on their Web sites, though some are far more robust than others, and American isn’t far behind.
Among the not-so-major frequent flyer programs, America West FlightFund, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and Aloha Airlines AlohaPass all maintain online malls, each powered by a third party mall site — MilesMall.com. In addition to managing the malls for each of these airlines, MilesMall.com also serves as the engine behind the Amtrak Guest Rewards Shopping Mall. And GlobalPass, a program that partners with Aeropostal, Grupo Taca, Alianza, KLM and US Airways, has also recently opened a mall of its own called the GlobalPass Mall, with 285 stores. Through the GlobalPass Mall, members can presumably earn up to 10 Global Miles per dollar spent, which can be used for awards on partner airlines. We say presumably because, when we tried to access the site, we were unable to actually attempt a transaction and received numerous error messages, both on a Mac and a PC. Still, assuming GlobalPass gets the bugs worked out soon, the GlobalPass Mall could become a major player in the online shopping game.
Along with the frequent flyer programs, ClickRewards.com and GoldPoints.com also offer online malls, and points earned with each can be redeemed for miles in various airline programs (GoldPoints.com is also directly affiliated with the Radisson Gold Rewards program and points earned through purchases are combined with any other points in a member’s Gold Rewards account).
|Merchandise to Miles|
|America West FlightFund Mall||155||http://www.milesmall.com/flightfund|
|American Express Membership Rewards shopAmex||80||http://www.shopamex.com|
|Amtrak Guest Rewards Mall||155||http://www.milesmall.com/amtrak|
|Continental OnePass ShopOnePass||27||http://www.continental.com/onepass/earn/shopping|
|Delta SkyMiles Holiday Shopping||5||http://www.delta.com/holidayshopping|
|Delta SkyMiles [GoldPoints]||114||http://www.goldpoints.com|
|Delta SkyMiles SkyMilesShopping||93||http://www.skymilesshopping.com|
|Northwest WorldPerks Mall||72||http://www.nwa.com/mall|
|Northwest WorldPerks [GoldPoints]||114||http://www.goldpoints.com|
|United Mileage Plus Mall||71||http://www.mileageplusmall.com|
|US Airways Dividend Miles Mall||120||http://www.dividendmilesonlinerewards.com/english/shop|
|US Airways Dividend Miles [ClickRewards]||134||http://www.clickrewards.com|
|US Airways Dividend Miles [GoldPoints]||114||http://www.goldpoints.com|
American Express Membership Rewards has opened a mall of its own as well, called shopAmex. Modeled slightly differently than other program-based online shopping sites, shopAmex doesn’t offer bonus points for mall purchases — members earn the standard number of points for a purchase made with their American Express card (although special bonus offers may be available from time to time). And, unlike the typical frequent flyer mall that serves simply as a portal to merchant sites, all the shopping at shopAmex is performed on the American Express Web site. The pros to this approach: theoretically, at least, it should eliminate un-credited points issues, and it adds another layer of convenience in that members can purchase items from several different stores and are only required to check-out once. The cons: navigating the various merchants becomes a bit of a chore, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for and prefer to browse, and there appear to be several bugs that still haven’t been worked out of the system.
Air Canada Aeroplan members can also benefit from a credit card-affiliated shopping mall. CIBC eShops offers nearly 50 merchants, and Aeroplan members who own a CIBC Aerogold Visa or a CIBC Aerogold Visa Business card can earn bonus Aeroplan miles when shopping there.
And finally, Marriott is in the online mall game, though somewhat indirectly. Members of the Marriott Rewards program can earn 10 points for every dollar spent when they click through from the Marriott site to the SkyMall Web site (the proper click through link can be found on the Marriott site at http://www.marriottrewards.com/points/default.asp?WT_Ref=mi_left). Through SkyMall, Marriott Rewards members can choose to shop from a selection of over 200 merchants.
SkyMall maintains similar partnerships with both Continental and Delta, and is actively seeking other such frequent travel partnerships.
“Our customer base is the same as that of the hotels and airlines,” says SkyMall president, Christine Aguilera. “We’re always looking for opportunities to add new offerings to our customers, and that’s something we’ll continue working towards.”
Continental OnePass members can earn five miles per dollar spent at SkyMall when entering the mall through the ShopOnePass site and Delta SkyMiles members earn three miles per dollar when they enter through the proper link on Delta’s Miscellaneous Partners page (http://www.delta.com/skymiles/getmiles/misc_partners/index.jsp).
Make a List, And Check it Twice
No matter the length and breadth of your holiday shopping list, you’ll more than likely be able to find everything you’re searching for at one of the frequent flyer malls. Between the various programs, hundreds of stores are represented, selling everything from fax machines to fedoras. You name it, and you can probably buy it at one of the frequent flyer malls.
Of course, some of the malls offer a better selection than others. Among the major airlines, the US Airways Dividend Miles Shopping Mall (managed by Advantex) is the largest in terms of vendors, offering members 120 stores from which to shop. ClickRewards has that number topped, with a total of 134 vendors setting up shop in its mall. And MilesMall.com and all of its affiliated offshoots each feature 155 merchant partners.
On the smaller end of the scale, you’ll find the ShopOnePass Mall with just 27 associated merchants.
Like the shopper who prefers the small shopping center just down the road over the giant supermall across town, many frequent travelers prefer to make do with the selection of vendors offered by their preferred program, and hence earn their miles of choice (another reason why these malls are becoming so popular with the programs). But if you’re the type who prefers to shop around for a deal, you can find significant mileage-earning differences among the assorted offerings.
In the “Comparing Miles” sidebar table, you can see a sample of the mileage amounts offered by the major program malls for purchases made at some of the most popular merchants.
As you can see, Continental, though it features significantly fewer vendors, offers much greater mileage earning potential with most merchants — up to 20 times greater in some instances.
“OnePass has focused on providing the best mileage proposition while enabling members to benefit from the discounts and free shipping offered at the retailers’ Web sites,” says King. “The site has quickly grown in number of purchases and member visits, and the feedback OnePass has received has been positive. Members have earned millions of miles through the mall and we can attest to their satisfaction by the high number of repeat purchases.”
It’s also interesting to note that, in cases where United and US Airways feature the same merchants, United’s offer typically bests that of US Airways (this could be useful information for those who maintain membership in both programs to take advantage of the partnership between the two).
MilesMall.com appears to serve a unique niche in that it allows smaller programs to offer a mall of their own, albeit with substantially reduced mileage-earning rates. But be careful if what you’re after is America West FlightFund miles, as you’re likely to find a better deal shopping through the GoldPoints.com mall than through the FlightFund mall. A $150 purchase at Bose made through the FlightFund mall will add a total of 75 FlightFund miles to your account. If you were to make the same purchase at Bose through the GoldPoints.com mall, you’d net a total of 8,250 Gold Points. Gold Points can be transferred through the Gold Rewards program to a number of airlines, including America West, at an 8:1 transfer ratio, which means you could end up with 1,031 FlightFund miles for the purchase — a significant difference indeed.
In fact, though GoldPoints has been much maligned in the past (see the sidebar — When Good Holiday Mall Promotions Go Bad), its relationship with the Radisson Gold Rewards program allows for mileage earning in many airline programs with smaller memberships, including Air Canada, Asiana, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, El Al, Gulf Air, Icelandair, Mexicana and Midwest. And Gold Points can also be converted into Delta SkyMiles and American AAdvantage miles.
And here’s another tip for those who are always looking for the best deal, but don’t want to spread their miles around: while the malls tend not to host direct competitors, some of the bigger malls include multiple stores that sell similar products. Sometimes it pays to look around for the best mileage deal.
For example, say you want to get your niece a printer to go with that new computer you happen to know she’ll soon be getting from a certain gentleman whose initials happen to be SC (wink, wink), and you want to earn OnePass miles in the process. A trip to the ShopOnePass Mall reveals that Best Buy offers two miles per dollar spent on all items.
But shop around a little more and you’ll find that Circuit City and Office Max also share space in the mall, and each offer three miles per dollar spent. What’s more, it’s very likely that all carry similar, if not identical, printers.
Though the frequent flyer malls now attract thousands of members each year, there are still some who aren’t convinced of their value.
“I made several purchases from Target.com through the WorldPerks mall (on WP VISA of course) and have yet to see any of my WP Mall miles post,” says a member of FlyerTalk.com who goes by the name dakotakid. “I sent an email requesting my mileage but have yet to hear a response.”
This customer isn’t alone. The failure of miles to post is a common complaint lodged by mall customers. And it’s a complaint the programs take seriously. In today’s world of high speed information sharing, one unsatisfied customer can influence the purchasing decision of thousands of potential customers.
Still, many members find themselves caught in the mileage run around. Their miles don’t post in the allotted time (usually 6-8 weeks per most programs terms and conditions), so they call the program asking (oftentimes demanding) resolution. The program assures them the situation will be investigated. Then, weeks later, the member receives a call or email telling them they will need to contact the merchant directly to resolve the issue. The merchant tells the member he/she will need to work it out with the program … and so on.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately this scenario is all too common.
If you make purchases regularly from a frequent flyer mall, it’s not a question of if all your miles will post, but how to handle the situation when some of your miles fail to post. Despite the rush by consumers to the Internet, e-commerce is still in its infancy, and errors can and do occur. Developments in the technology are working to bring the error rates down, but when tens of thousands of transactions are being processed daily among the various online malls, even a miniscule error rate can result in a mass of dissatisfied customers.
The best single action you can take to ensure you get the miles that are due you is to print your receipt screen when making the transaction, as well as keep all printed materials that arrive with the purchased item — this includes shipping receipts, order receipts, even the shipping order attached to the box. What the heck, save the box too while you’re at it, at least until your miles show up in your account.
This might sound like overkill, but the more physical proof you have demonstrating your purchase, the better your chances of convincing the program you deserve your miles.
Another concern expressed by some members is the fear of overpaying for an item just to get miles. Some avoid the malls because they believe the mileage cost is built into the product cost.
Not true. The frequent flyer malls are basically designed as portals, or doorways, into the various merchant stores. In order to receive miles for a purchase, the customer must enter the merchant’s Web site via the program’s site, but once in the merchant’s online “space” the customer can purchase items at the same prices available to all customers.
Now, this isn’t to say that you won’t find a better deal on a given product at another online store, only that the vendors aren’t upping their prices for customers who enter their stores through the frequent flyer mall portals to factor in the cost of miles. So if you’ve been avoiding shopping through the frequent flyer malls for this reason, you can put your fears to rest and shop worry free.
A Holly Jolly Christmas
Though there are some skeptics, for most the benefits of shopping at the frequent flyer malls far outweigh the concerns, especially during the holiday season.
Dreading the prospect of dealing with the crowds. Why bother? The beauty of the Internet is that it allows you to get your shopping done anytime you like, day or night, all without suffering the shove or harsh word of a single fellow shopper.
There’s some question though as to whether or not there are even any crowds out there anymore. Jupiter Research reports that 40 percent of online users plan to do some or all of their holiday shopping online this holiday season, an increase of 18 percent over last year. The research firm also forecasts that online holiday retail sales will increase 21 percent this year over last, to a total of $17 billion.
Regardless of the crowd situation, the miles are the main attraction for the frequent flyer — and for holiday shoppers, the miles can add up even more quickly.
From November 1 through December 31, Northwest is running a WorldPerks Mall Holiday Shopping Spree promotion. Members who register for the promotion will receive double miles on purchases at select mall merchants.
“We anticipate we will see a spike over the holidays,” says Mary Stanik, media relations manager, WorldPerks, “especially since we have launched the WorldPerks Holiday Shopping Spree promotion and have recently added some additional merchants.”
At the time we went to press, the WorldPerks Mall was the only one offering a special holiday promotion. It’s likely though that some of the other malls will offer seasonal promotions of their own, so be ever vigilant for those double and even triple mileage deals.
We’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You
So, if frequent flyer programs are growing in popularity, and seem to benefit all involved, the question that must be asked is: Why is the top airline in the world, American, still without a mall of its own?
It’s a fair question.
For its part, the American AAdvantage program does offer a substitute of sorts to its members. Because AAdvantage is a redemption partner in the ClickRewards program, AAdvantage members can shop through ClickRewards, earn ClickReward points and convert them on a one-to-one basis into AAdvantage miles. Still, for a frequent flyer program that boasts over 40 million members, this seems a poor substitute.
Evidently, the executives at AAdvantage agree.
“We have something in the works that we will launch early next year,” says Jeff Zidell, vice president, AAdvantage Marketing Programs. “We believe that these programs provide good value for both members and partners, and we look forward to offering our members more ways to earn AAdvantage miles with some top online merchants.”
Happy Shopping To All, And To All a Good Flight
Clearly the advantages the online frequent flyer malls provide are numerous. A variety of merchants from which to choose, bonus miles in the program of your choice, and the convenience to shop when and where you want all contribute to the explosiveness of this type of venture.
But if the frequent flyer malls are a part of your shopping strategy this holiday season, don’t be lulled into complacency by the convenience and seeming ease of it all. For all the time this type of electronic shopping can save, the merchants are still bound to the physical world of planes, trains and automobiles when it comes to delivering the goods.
Pay close attention to posted shipping times when placing your orders — and to be on the safe side, double them. If a merchant tells you an item will usually be delivered in 3-6 days, figure on 6-12 days during the holiday rush. Better your gifts arrive two weeks early than two days late.
If you’ve waited too long, the solution might be e-certificates. Many online merchants now offer electronic gift certificates that are sent instantly via email (particularly good for those who wake up in a panic in the middle of the night on Dec. 23, remembering just then that they neglected to send a gift to their best client). Beware though, most online mall merchants don’t allow mileage earning for gift certificate purchases, so only consider this as a last resort.
And remember, though it’s the holiday season and we’ve focused on gift purchases, all of the frequent flyer malls offer much more than just gift items. In fact, you just might find yourself shopping and earning regularly long after the holidays are a distant memory.
With the emergence of online frequent flyer malls, shopping can be fun again — even for the frequent traveler.
Joy to the World Wide Web.