Canadian consumers who use rewards programs are facing a shifting landscape, forcing them to rethink how and where they shop.
The latest loyalty program agreement was announced this week between Aeroplan parent-company Aimia Inc. and online retail giant Amazon. It was a major deal for Aeroplan, which lost its partnership with Esso gas stations starting June 1, and recently received notice its long-term contract with Air Canada will end in 2020.
The other big loyalty program change this year was the marriage on Feb. 1 of PC Plus points and Shoppers Optimum – two of Canada's most popular plans. The new PC Optimum program, created by parent Loblaw Cos. Ltd., has experienced some hiccups so far with some members having trouble converting to the new program.
Still, Canadians are unlikely to give up on collecting their points. Remember the debacle with Air Miles when it tried to place expiry dates on its points before finally giving in to consumer backlash?
About 90 per cent of Canadians have a loyalty card and have an average of four in their wallet, according to a 2015 study. Another study showed there was an average of 13.3 loyalty memberships per household in Canada, or about 175 million memberships nationwide.
Patrick Sojka, travel rewards expert and founder of RewardsCanada.ca, says Canadians should participate in as many loyalty programs that make sense, based on their consumption habits, and use point-generating or cash-back credit cards for every purchase, as long as they pay off their balance each month.
"A lot of times you can double dip" with reward programs, Mr. Sojka says, which means earning points on your credit card and from the retailer's reward program.
"I almost never pull out cash or my debit card these days," he says. "Everything should be going on your credit card so you can earn as many points and miles as you can." Mr Sojka also encourages consumers to take advantage of sign-up bonuses on credit cards and for rewards programs.
Here are the some of the top loyalty programs Canadians are using today (in alphabetical order), and what's behind them:
Aeroplan: This rewards program has seen its fair share of turbulence since Air Canada announced last year that it was leaving to start its own in-house plan at the end of the decade, when its existing agreement expires. (Air Canada said it intends to continue to offer Aimia redemption seats for Aeroplan members after June 2020.) Then, Esso said it would leave Aeroplan at the end of May to join the new PC Optimum program. Aeroplan bounced back with the announcement that it's joining forces with Amazon. Starting April 24, Aeroplan members who visit Amazon.ca through Aeroplan.com can earn one Aeroplan Mile for every dollar spent, the company said. Members with silver and black status will earn up to twice the miles and those with diamond status will receive up to triple the miles per transaction. Aeroplan-affiliated credit card users will earn miles twice on purchases from Amazon.ca.
Air Miles: Owned by LoyaltyOne Inc., the program allows consumers to earn points from various retailers and use them toward travel or consumer goods. Shoppers no longer have to worry about their points expiring either, after the company abandoned that plan, although some rushed to redeem them before the decision was reversed. "Air Miles is valuable because it's everywhere," says Stephen Weyman, personal finance expert and the founder of HowToSaveMoney.ca and creditcardgenius.ca. Still, he says the points earned from everyday purchases are "mediocre at best compared to other programs."
PC Optimum: Despite a bumpy start, the new PC Optimum loyalty program can be rewarding for consumers that shop at Loblaws and its affiliates, including Shoppers Drug Mart. Mr. Weyman says consumers can also get "incredible earning power" during bonus point days at Shoppers Drug Mart. "We're talking up to 30-per-cent-plus return on spending," he says, even though the items can often be more expensive than at some of the big-box stores. There are also personalized offers based on shopping habits. "I consider it to be the best rewards program in Canada," Mr. Weyman says.
Scene: A partnership between Bank of Nova Scotia and Cineplex Entertainment that allows consumers to earn rewards at the movies as well as Cara Operations Ltd. restaurants such as Harvey's, Swiss Chalet, Milestones and Montana's. Members can earn points toward free movie tickets or food at participating restaurants. Mr. Sojka says Scene has been working on expanding beyond movies, partly because of lower attendance at theatres and to attract a broader demographic of consumers.
Starwood Hotels: Experts describe this as one of the best rewards programs for its number of travel partners and the value of its rewards. "The points are incredibly valuable if you have the [American Express] credit card that goes with it," Mr. Weyman says. Consumers like it because the points can be converted to various airlines and the points are more valuable than most other programs. Returns per dollar spent can range from about 2 to 8 per cent or more, depending on how they're collected, versus about 1 to 2 per cent for most cards in the market, Mr. Sojka says.