Loyalty rewards misses cost consumers cash

Save Me: Rewards Programs
How to save big money on reward programs   

Shoppers have hit a rewards slump—and may be missing out as a result.

Americans have 3.3 billion memberships in loyalty programs, according to a study from research firm Colloquy, but enthusiasm about using them has been waning. While the average household has 29 different memberships, up from 22 in 2013, active membership rates fell 4.5 percent over the same period. The typical family uses just 12 programs.

Credit card rewards aren't a big draw, either. Only 14 percent of Americans cited earning rewards as a top reason they use credit cards, according to a new Bankrate.com survey, and 51 percent said they would keep using their card in the same way even if rewards were cut back or eliminated.

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But deal hunters say consumers who don't pay attention to their loyalty program or reward options—or who don't participate, period—are missing out on potentially valuable rewards. "I'm such a firm believer in loyalty programs, and there are so many out there that people don't take advantage of," said Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for deal site RetailMeNot.com.

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Retail reward cards
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Retail reward cards

One often-missed opportunity: Stacking to earn rewards across several programs and sites. Let's say you're booking a hotel for your next vacation. There's the hotel program, obviously, and points or cash for using a particular credit card. But shoppers could also start their purchase at a rewards portal like Ebates.com, which offers 1.25 percent cash back on purchases made at booking site Orbitz. Then Orbitz itself awards 3 percent back in site rewards on hotel purchases. (Some hotels will only offer rewards on rooms booked directly; it's up to the traveler to decide whether it's better to get an extra discount through a booking site or accrue points toward a free room.)

To put a value on that, a $1,000 hotel booking would generate $12.50 cash back at the portal, $30 in rewards for a future Orbitz.com purchase and $20 back on a credit card with 2 percent cash-back (like Citi's Double Cash).

Grocery shoppers could earn points in a manufacturer's program (like Kellogg's or Huggies) as well as points toward deals in a supermarket program. In stores including Safeway, Stop & Shop and Giant Eagle, users typically rack up points to get discounts at participating gas stations, said Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com. There can also be seasonal deals like discount amusement park tickets, bonus gift cards or a free Thanksgiving turkey for shoppers who hit specific spending thresholds. The grocery purchase could earn credit card rewards, as will any subsequent gas purchases.

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If a few extra points or cash-back aren't enough of an incentive, consider that portals and credit cards often attach extra discounts or bonuses to the transaction, Bodge said. United's Mileage Plus Shopping Portal is offering 500 to 2,500 bonus miles to shoppers who link to their favorite retailers and spend $150 to $700 before Monday. FatWallet.com awards 2 percent cash back on Gap purchases, and still lets shoppers use digital coupons like a recent one worth 30 percent off full-price styles.

Shoppers who want to condense their rewards for a quicker payout aren't without options, either. When the goal is a free airline ticket, for example, a shopper could start at that airline's shopping portal and use a credit card that earns miles in the program or allows for reward transfers. Chase and American Express allow point transfers to partner travel providers; so does the Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect hotel program limits on rewards earned.