Bank of Montreal’s purchase of the troubled Air Miles loyalty program appears likely to prevent customers’ reward points from becoming worthless overnight. But industry experts say people with unredeemed balances should still be wary, both of the bank’s track record of devaluing rewards points, and of the challenges it will face as it competes in the crowded loyalty rewards market.
BMO BMO-T announced on Friday that it had signed an agreement worth US$160-million to purchase LoyaltyOne Co., which runs Air Miles. Both LoyaltyOne and its U.S.-based parent company, Loyalty Ventures Inc., have filed for creditor protection.
Barry Choi, a personal finance and travel expert with Moneywehave.com, said the news will come as a relief to Canadians who rushed to redeem their points on Thursday when news of the insolvency broke.
Customers earn Air Miles when they use Air Miles-branded credit cards, or make purchases at the program’s partner businesses. Mr. Choi said he heard from several Air Miles users that the loyalty program’s website was crashing as people tried to cash out in case their points, which can be exchanged for flights and merchandise, became worthless.
“There’s no real rush any more for consumers, and I feel pretty confident that your points aren’t going to expire and you’re not going to lose them,” Mr. Choi said.
What’s less clear is what the acquisition by BMO will do for Air Miles in a highly competitive rewards-points landscape. In a news release, BMO said its acquisition would allow for a “made-in-Canada” effort to reinvigorate the loyalty program, which has existed here since 1992 and is now one of the country’s largest.
The bank said there are currently nearly 10 million active accounts, and that its acquisition deal would not have any impact on point balances.
But Mr. Choi said there’s always a chance that the value of Air Miles will decrease in this transition. He said that the number of major retailers that accept Air Miles has shrunk over the past two years. Some of the only remaining large retailers that issue Air Miles are Shell gas stations, Budget car-rental locations, and Ontario locations of the Metro grocery store.
Mr. Choi said the program could grow its presence with smaller retailers, but that it will be difficult for the company to create a footprint with additional large retailers.
Some of Canada’s biggest grocers have already consolidated their own points systems: stores under the Loblaw Companies Ltd. LBLCF umbrella – such as NoFrills, the Real Canadian Superstore and Shoppers Drug Mart – offer PC Optimum points. Retail giant Empire, which operates Sobeys and other chains, has partnered with Bank of Nova Scotia’s Scene+ rewards points program.
Competing credit-card rewards programs, such as Air Canada’s Aeroplan and American Express’s Membership Rewards, also offer value to cardholders.
“BMO can say they’re going to add partners, but think about who’s even left,” Mr. Choi said.
Patrick Sojka, founder of the points advice website Rewardscanada.ca, added that BMO has not always upheld the value of rewards points for its in-house programs.
He said the bank’s in-house credit-card rewards program was a fantastic option for users years ago, but that its points have been consistently devalued in recent years, making it one of the less popular options.
Mr. Sojka said Air Miles remain popular, but were devalued in 2021. The industry now considers an Air Mile’s dollar value to be roughly 10 cents, down from as much as 15.
“The main key I’m telling people is that this is great news, but in the long run we have to be careful a little, because of BMO’s history,” Mr. Sojka added.
He said Air Miles still offer the best value in Canada when it comes to redeeming business-class travel fares. For economy-class fares, Mr. Sojka said, other reward programs, such as Aeroplan, offer similar value.
Considering the instability of the Air Miles brand over the past few years, and the smaller number of retailers offering points, Mr. Choi said he wouldn’t be surprised if customers move on to other programs.
“If consumers can’t actively earn points, then it’s not going to be worth the trouble,” he said.