Reward Programs

Reward program is a term that can describe anything from receiving a complimentary item from your local coffee shop, to credit card rewards, multi-retailer programs, and more.

Reward programs are offered in many forms, although most commonly as a card used at the time of purchase to collect points in exchange for a variety of items such as goods and services, cash back, travel discounts, vouchers, and coupons.

You can sign up for reward programs at many of the places you normally shop, including online or through your credit card company.

Types of Reward Programs

  • Credit card programs: Most credit card companies offer travel, points, or cash back reward cards. Cash back cards offer a percentage of cash back on eligible expenses, while travel and points cards offer points that may be redeemed for goods or services or can be used toward flights, hotels, car rentals or vacation packages. Many of these programs are specific to the card issuer (i.e. all rewards are redeemed through an in-house program), while others issue points towards outside, multi-retailer programs (listed below). Some credit card reward programs are also linked to a specific chain of retailers that offer higher reward points when you shop at their stores. Keep in mind, while the rewards offered may be high, the cards often have higher interest rates. When considering credit card reward programs, it is a good idea to review any associated monthly or annual fees.
  • Multi-retailer programs: Some reward programs include cards that can be used at a group of affiliated retailers to collect points. These points may then be redeemed in the form of cash back on purchases instantly, or you can accumulate points in exchange for items such as travel rewards or gifts. Points collected through multi-retailer programs may expire after a certain period of time. Take note of any expiry dates when signing up for this type of reward program, and evaluate how often you plan on using the program.
  • In-store rewards and store value coupons: Some retailers offer in-store reward programs. These types of programs may be as simple as receiving a free product or service after purchasing a certain value of goods or services at that particular store. Other in-store reward programs may come in a card form – which can be similar to some cash back reward programs – where you accumulate points and can trade them for free products or services, or for coupons and money-off vouchers. Keep in mind that some of these rewards and coupons have expiry dates attached.
  • Travel rewards: Travel rewards or frequent flyer points are offered by many airlines or travel companies to their customers. Points can be accumulated either through booking flights, hotel stays, renting a car, or booking packages. Some points can also be accumulated through credit card purchases generally. It is important to note that some travel reward programs have “blackout” periods, meaning rewards cannot be redeemed for travel during specific times of the year. Some types of travel rewards limit the number of seats available to those who travel using these programs. Make sure to check each reward programs’ terms of service agreement to familiarize yourself with blackout periods and other limitations before signing up.
  • Online discounts and offers: Depending on which reward program you’ve signed up for, there may be different terms based on the way you buy products or services. Some retailers offer discounts for purchasing products online, instead of accumulating points if you shop in-store. There are also some reward programs that operate entirely online. Also, certain companies offer additional rewards to users who participate in activities hosted on their website. Make sure to read the terms of service agreement for clear instructions about how you can collect and redeem rewards.

Collection, Redeeming and Expiry

The way you collect and redeem points may vary greatly depending on which reward programs you have signed up for. Some in-store reward programs may not allow you to collect points on certain products such as prescription drugs, gift card purchases, postage, lottery tickets, public transportation tickets or passes, or tobacco products. These regulations vary by province and territory and by the type of program.

Some companies offer point swaps. Users of these reward programs may be able to sign up online to trade points with other users, or even buy more points in order to gain rewards. However, not all programs allow this, so it’s best to refer to each programs’ terms of service agreement for clear instructions. Many companies also offer point donations, where you can donate your accumulated points to charity.

When it’s time to redeem points, it’s important to consider the value of the rewards you are collecting. Redemption levels may differ between programs: some points programs may offer one point for every dollar spent, while others may offer more or less. When redeeming points for purchases, compare the actual value of the item you’re interested in to the number of points you’re trading in. You may find that you can get better value from your points on different rewards.

Many reward program points can expire after a certain amount of time. Some companies will allow you to restore expired points for a fee. When you sign up for reward programs, make sure you check to see if the points expire to ensure you can make use of them.

How to Decided Which Programs to Sign Up For

Because many companies offer various types of programs, it can be difficult to determine which reward program is the most beneficial for you. There are a number of factors to consider before making a decision.

Compare Programs:

Compare different programs before deciding which ones work best for you. Go online or call companies for information about the programs. Find out how easy or difficult it is to redeem the points or buy goods, as well as the point-to-dollar spent ratio. Some credit cards also have bonus points for signing up that can be considered.

Other points to consider are:

  • How often will you use and accumulate rewards offered in a program?
  • Is there an annual fee or a cost to join the program? Is it worth the amount of rewards you think you will gain?
  • Compare interest rates. Some credit cards with reward programs may come with higher rates.
  • Ask about expiry dates for redeeming points.
  • Will you actually use the rewards offered?
  • Compare the level of points or cash back offered between programs.

Ask about Fees:

Many credit card reward programs charge annual fees that can cancel out the value of the rewards points if you don’t accumulate enough. In order to obtain the greatest rewards from a credit card company’s reward program, it’s important to pay your balance in full each month. If you carry a balance, increased interest charges associated with a reward card may outweigh the benefits of a reward program. If you do regularly maintain a monthly balance, you may benefit more from a low interest credit card without a reward program.

Managing Reward Programs

There are a number of tools available to help you manage the reward programs you’ve signed up for.

  • Mobile Applications: Some applications (apps) are free to use, others come at a cost. They are either provided by retailers directly or are offered by a third-party company. Certain apps allow you to scan all your loyalty cards to your smart phone so that they are easy-to-find. Others allow you to access deals, coupons and more from the businesses you frequent most often, along with storing your reward cards. They can often help you track your rewards as well. However, some reward programs may not function with all third-party apps, so check before downloading.
  • Online: Some companies offer the option to log into an account online to track your rewards. Tracking points can help you see where you’re spending your money and ways you can gain more points.
  • Receipts: Some companies print your rewards balance on your receipt after you’ve shopped in their store. This method often shows the amount of points accumulated to date, and how many points are needed before you qualify for redemption.

Be Cautious with Your Information

You may be required to fill out detailed personal information when signing up for a reward program. It is important to read the terms of service agreement carefully to understand how each company is storing and using your data. With this information, many companies use your purchase history to fine tune marketing campaigns. If you suspect a company is misusing your personal information, you should contact them directly, or the Office of the Privacy Commission Canada (OPC) to file a complaint. The OPC recommends limiting the amount of personal information you share with others. For more information about personal privacy, visit http://www.priv.gc.ca.

Always be careful when you provide personal information like your name, mailing address and email address, cell phone number and date of birth. The Better Business Bureau provides the following information to avoid loyalty card scams:

  • If you receive an unsolicited text message, check the web address or phone number before replying.
  • Most financial institutions, utility, or other business will not communicate by text message or email. Do not visit the site or call the number if you are contacted this way.
  • Review your credit cards and bank statements to ensure there are no unauthorized charges. It’s important to use caution when shopping online to ensure your personal information is safe. Sometimes when completing a purchase, another page or button will pop-up offering a discount off your next purchase or a gift card. While this may be legitimate, you may have been transferred to another site that asks for personal information or to fill out a questionnaire. While it may provide discounts, you could be mistakenly signing up for a loyalty program through a marketing company that could charge your credit card.

You may also wish to visit the Consumer Privacy section of the Consumer Handbook for tips on protecting your personal information while shopping.

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