Limited Time Offer! Act Now! One Day Only!
Those aren't just sales slogans from stores looking to draw shoppers. Increasingly, credit card companies are hyping short-term ways to earn extra reward points or to score special deals.
For consumers, the rise of deals and bonuses that last for as little as one day can mean even more ways to save money or accumulate credit card reward points. But the trend also means cardholders have to pay closer attention to where to shop, when to shop and what card to use if they want to reap the most benefits from their cards.
For card companies, offering limited-time deals makes their cards stand out by giving customers additional reasons to use their plastic at specific places and times. The additional rewards are often meager, but they can be meaningful to card issuers, says Nicholas Felten, founder of the blog Personal Finance Digest.
"They want you to use their card," Felten says. "The more you are thinking about your card, the more likely you are to use that card in other situations. That's why they offer these targeted promotions."
Some of the recent short-term deals include:
- Retail savings. Every Tuesday, holders of the Gap Visa card get 10 percent off Gap or Old Navy merchandise purchased in stores or online. People who use the Nordstrom Visa Signature card for Nordstrom purchases enjoy scheduled bonus points events -- two- or three-day periods several times a year in which they can earn double or triple points in the store's loyalty program. On top of that, once a year they get to choose their own day to earn triple points on purchases made with the card (note, however, that Louis Vuitton items are ineligible for triple points).
- Special access to shows. In September, Citi sponsored a performance by comedian Jerry Seinfeld in New York that was available only to holders of Citi ThankYou credit cards. The tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. on a Friday, and the best seats sold out the first day. Other big card issuers routinely offer entertainment ticket presales before they are made available to the general public. American Express cardholders get early access to tickets for performances ranging from The Nutcracker to Cher.
- Dining and movie perks. Throughout 2013, holders of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card can earn triple points, instead of the usual double points, when they use the card at restaurants on the first Friday of each month. And this summer, diners in New York who used their American Express cards to pay for meals at nearly 300 restaurants as part of a "Restaurant Week" promotion received a $5 statement credit. Visa Signature cards and Fandango also ran a promotion in which cardholders could receive a movie ticket for free when buying one at the regular price on Fridays during the summer.
'Relevant' card offers
Melanie Backs, a spokeswoman with American Express, says offering short-term deals "creates some excitement" among the company's cardholders, who appreciate the chance to wring more value from their cards.
"It's about showing our card members that we are relevant to their everyday lives," she says. "You are getting rewarded for everyday transactions and experiences that you have."
American Express will again participate in "Small Business Saturday," a November event in which consumers are encouraged to shop at small businesses. It's offering a $10 credit to shoppers who spend $10 or more at small businesses on that day using an AmEx card they've registered for the event.
As technology improves and customer preferences evolve, the days of signing up for a card and having its features imposed on you are giving way to an era of increased flexibility in creating cards and exerting greater individual control over their rewards.
In recent years, card issuers have tried to become more relevant to their customers and to increase interactions with their cards. Some banks now give customers greater control over their cards' financial features upon applying for a new account. Some cards, such as the U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature card and the Huntington Voice card, allow consumers to specify quarterly which categories of purchases will earn bonus points.
Keeping tabs on deals
For consumers, though, these short-term deals, personalization and targeted offers can become complicated. To maximize your rewards, you first have to hear about deals using social media, or via emails from your card issuer, blogs and other sources of information -- and then remember which card to use, when and where.
"It definitely pays off to pay attention," says Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, a site dedicated to maximizing frequent flier miles and credit card points. "A lot of people don't know about these offers."
Kelly suggests looking through ads in your online or printed credit card bill and not assuming that every offer is worthless marketing material.
Geoff Whitmire, founder of NoobTraveler, suggests staying plugged in by following bloggers who write frequently about rewards -- and there are plenty of those nowadays. He also recommends following banks on Twitter, since they often announce promotions there.
Another way to tune in to short-term rewards deals is by using mobile phone apps such as Reward Summit or Wallaby, which recommend what card to use with different kinds of merchants based on available rewards, including short-term promotions. The apps are available for iPhones and Android phones.
"Once you say you have a card, you don't have to worry about it. Just check what card to use," says Matthew Goldman, founder of Wallaby Financial. "Our system was built to keep track of those rewards to the individual day and across different categories."
A simpler plan
If keeping up with steady streams of offers is overwhelming, another option is to stick with a card that has valuable and simple-to-understand rewards and not worry about missing out on small bonuses.
"Most people aren't really into tracking this, so they might be best off with a straightforward cash-back card," Felten says. A 2012 survey by CreditCards.com found that cash-back cards are offering more generous rewards than in the past, but that they also tend to offer different reward amounts based on where they are used.
Still, by offering rewards deals that expire in just a few days, credit card companies are tapping into a deep-seated human characteristic -- the same one that motivates consumers to jump at sales or to buy items when quantities are limited, says Nicholas Didow, a marketing professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.
While some people might honestly be looking for better values, others are motivated to seek even small economic advantages because of the "excitement of the hunt," Didow says.
"Some of the explanation is perhaps economically rational, while some of it speaks to our unique characteristics that we have as human beings," he says. "Take your pick."